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Small Island by Andrea Levy
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Small Island (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Andrea Levy

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2,9451131,951 (3.88)482
Member:rabbitprincess
Title:Small Island
Authors:Andrea Levy
Info:
Collections:Borrowed from library
Rating:****
Tags:england, general fiction, jamaica, saw the tv adaptation, 2013 CC Awards CAT, BMMDI, read in 2013

Work details

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)

  1. 60
    White Teeth by Zadie Smith (SqueakyChu)
    SqueakyChu: Both are novels about multicultutalism which consider Jamaican culture affecting England.
  2. 50
    The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (whymaggiemay)
  3. 40
    Brick Lane by Monica Ali (whymaggiemay)
    whymaggiemay: Both these excellent novels examine the issues of immigration and assimilation in England, though the cultures and backgrounds are different.
  4. 20
    The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (kathrynnd)
  5. 10
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (tcarter)
  6. 00
    The Same Earth by Kei Miller (alalba)
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» See also 482 mentions

English (112)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (114)
Showing 1-5 of 112 (next | show all)
[4.5] Middlebrow fiction as it should be done: entertaining, readable but not without substance; a book you still look forward to picking up when you're using most of your spare time for things other than reading. Levy makes this kind of writing look easy, but there must be a lot of paddling going on under the surface to make the novel glide so smoothly. No surprise that this was made into a BBC drama - it certainly has that Sunday evening TV feel: characters are entirely believeable as personalities, and there's an excellent mixture of the soapy (drama, big coincidences) and the detail of everyday life in the past, the well-trodden and the less so. Accessible literary fiction set in the present can easily become dreary, but Small Island spans enough time, and an eventful enough time, that there's always something really happening, not just people staring into space and thinking whilst driving or cooking for pages and pages.

It could be difficult to argue with someone who wanted to call this an issue novel (about racism). But maybe it depends on background: I just didn't see it that way. My grandparents came to Britain in the same decade as Gilbert and Hortense. Okay, if they walked through an area where no-one knew them or their names, they wore clothes that fitted in perfectly and they didn't speak, they would have been able to go about unremarked, unlike the Jamaican immigrants. But that wasn't the way most people lived in the forties. I still remember hearing about the racist bullying that went on in those days (worst between kids) and my incredulity that they weren't automatically assumed to be somewhat heroic due to the war. As a kid I thought not in terms of colour but simply people who were, like me, [partly] "not from here" in a non-pejorative sense, and those who were. My first school best friend was Indian, and I felt more at home with her than with the children who seemed entirely English. So although American commentators on race in particular (from a culture that has different attitudes to immigration that are more closely tied to colour) make strong divides between black and white, my gut feeling gives more affinity with Gilbert and Hortense.
Before reading a lot of identity politics material, it never seemed necessary to explicitly and defensively point out the awareness I'd always had that people from different countries or ethnic groups will have differing experiences related to that - that was just, well, duh.

On page 525, there is a speech by Gilbert which points out among other things, "no better, no worse than me - just white" which is fantastic as a balanced middle ground between the racists and the contemporary extremes of the internet social justice warrior tendency. (Surprised that paragraph isn't a GR quote.)

The more aggressive racism of America is a significant feature of the book. When the story follows Jamaican RAF volunteers during the war, it's white GIs who are violent, threatening and active proponents of segregation; the Brits are merely rude on a frequent basis, and , then as now, the UK brand of racism / xenophobia is as much about immigration as about colour, with the large numbers of recently-arrived Czechs, Poles, Belgians and even Jews (despite knowing what they’d gone through), as well as the Windrush Jamaicans, being a focus for rants by racist characters. Although once West Indian men start in working class jobs in England after the war - when they manage to secure a job in the first place - some colleagues are almost as unpleasant as the American soldiers.

Arguably, Queenie’s bank clerk husband Bernard is too easy a ‘villain’, a prejudiced, conventional man who has few redeeming features other than perhaps punctuality. Remember the old geek / nerd/ dork etc distinctions? Bernard is a dork or dweeb: he has the ineptitude and narrow-minded rigidity without better than average skills, and his context and anger means he’s not Pooterishly amusing. The more complex character of Queenie demonstrates that some racism is unthinking and conformity to attitudes a person grew up with – a person who could be educated out of it, especially by first hand experience. With Bernard it’s more ingrained and connected to other aspects of his character. His narrative was bloody irritating to read and gave me all the more sympathy for Queenie: she had gone out with him because he was presentable, attentive and seemed like the right sort according to received opinion, and ended up marrying him simply so she didn’t have to return to her parents. Having been involved with a couple of similar types for short periods when I was younger, as rebound or for other expedient reasons, it made me very grateful that times had changed.

‘Small islanders’ is the Jamaican characters’ term for people from the smaller West Indian islands - yokels and hicks, basically. Travelling abroad they come to regard both Jamaica and the fabled imperial Mother Country of GB (who turns out to be so uncaring and unwelcoming) as small islands too. It must be no accident that ‘small island’ and ‘small-minded’ sound similar. Stifling old-fashioned attitudes are almost everywhere. Even Queenie, who’s bravely anti-racist by the standards of her time and community, has no shortage of assumptions that would be unacceptable now. One of the quieter tragedies of the novel is the similarity in personality and opinions between Queenie and Hortense: the barriers that exist in everyone’s heads make it impossible for the two women even to realise all the ways in which they’re alike, let alone become friends as they may have been able to several decades later.

Small Island is a school text these days, and I think that’s a good thing. There are plenty of technical and character aspects for essays, plus some history and politics to make it seem worthwhile to kids who aren’t interested in further literature study. Perhaps it’s more likely to be used in schools with a good racial mix where it’s only preaching to the converted, though some teachers will probably introduce it to areas where kids would benefit from thinking more about these topics before they go to university or work. Still, it’s easy to criticise curricula and say how standards have fallen – I would have approved more if this was a GCSE rather than an A-Level book ( )
  antonomasia | Oct 17, 2014 |
Written in first person POV, with the narration alternating between the four main characters, the author did a wonderful job of giving each character a distinctive voice and personality, drawing us into his or her story completely.

Gilbert joins the West Indian RAF, eager to defend the Mother Country, which he loves without reservation. He gets a brief trip to America, which he is eager to see. He's impressed with the vast abundance of food available to the military there, but puzzled by how he and his fellow Jamaican citizens are treated differently, better, than the black people in America. Once in his beloved Mother Country, he is astounded to realize that its residents know nothing about Jamaica.

After the war is over, Gilbert and Hortense marry in Jamaica, and he travels back to England to look for work and find a place to live, sending for Hortense to join him six months later. She arrives expecting to be immersed in culture and class, and live in a nice house with a fancy doorbell. She is not expecting a single dirty room in an old house with a nosy white landlady who goes to market dressed in what appear to be her bedclothes. Hortense was a teacher in Jamaica, and expects to teach in England as well, but those hopes are quickly dashed. She and Gilbert didn't marry Gilbert for love, but for the chance to immigrate. The sections of story narrated by Gilbert and Hortense were my favorite. They are both fascinating and appealing characters, motivated by a desire for a better life in a country they've been brought up to love and respect, but which looks down on them because of the color of their skin.

Except for people like Queenie. When the war ended, her husband did not return, and she began renting out rooms in their home to support herself. Despite the disapproval and disdain of her neighbors, she gladly rents rooms to not only Gilbert and Hortense, but to another Jamaican immigrant as well. Queenie's and Bernard's sections of narration were still engrossing, but I didn't feel quite as embedded or invested in their lives as with Gilbert and Hortense.

The author's writing is very evocative, with just the right amount of humor and lightness thrown in among the serious topics.

Racism is the prevalent theme, treated with both dignity and matter of factness, a way of life that each character reacted to differently. Bernard is the least visible character, and the least likable, though in the end he shows unexpected compassion and strength. When the end of the book came, I was left wanting more, having questions that still needed answers. A secret was revealed, which provided a link between two characters that was not resolved to my satisfaction. But that's a part of life, right?

A beautifully written and thought provoking look at a country and it's people torn apart by and then putting themselves back together after a war. Read it.
  octoberwoman | Jul 20, 2014 |
Read during Winter 2004/2005

Not out in the US yet, I'm reading a copy from my book group UK pal. It took about 2 pages to get into it but I never expected all the different bits of the story to connect up in the way they finally did. It is told in both different character voices and in both the past and 'present' (1948) which can get confusing, even though she carefully heads the chapters with the characters names. I just found it hard to mentally shift in the midst of scene from one characters head to another. It was fascinating, though, much more a study of the racism in Britain than I expected. At first, it seemed to be about the colony/empire clash. Perhaps it still was, at the end.
  amyem58 | Jul 14, 2014 |
This fantastic book was winner of the Orange Prize in 2004. It is the story of two newly married Jamaican immigrants in England just after WWII and the white woman they rent a room from. I don't really want to describe the plot or characters much because Levy does it so beautifully. I will say that the portrayal of the immigrant experience, and the black immigrant experience at that, is done really well. I loved how she wrote their words in clear English as they were thinking them and made it clear how different it sounded by making others not understand. Also the characters are connected in ways they don't realize and I loved that Levy revealed this to the reader, but not to the characters. Levy also explores the war experience through both the black and white characters and especially how they are treated after service.

This book is an enjoyable read that has some important themes to share. I highly recommend it. ( )
  japaul22 | Jul 8, 2014 |
Set in London just after the end of WWII and told via multiple narrators, the novel explores issues of race, sex and social class by focusing on two couples. Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, both blacks originally from Jamaica and newly landed in the UK have a marriage of convenience, with Hortense having funded their relocation to the country they both dearly want to call home. Hortense is an incredible snob who considers herself thoroughly English and is sure that she will land a teaching job in the UK at one of the best schools. Gilbert on the other hand has had plenty of experience to show him that coloured people are far from welcome on that Island and are likely to be met with hatred and unbelievable hostility. They move into a rooming house kept by Queenie Bligh, whose husband Bernard has disappeared while away on duty in India. Queenie, originally a butcher's daughter living in the country, escaped to London and the promise of a good life because of her good looks and refined tastes, and an aunt willing to take her under her wing. But her marriage to Bernard has turned out to be far from satisfactory and her dalliances with a black Jamaican RAF man will impact all their lives. None of the characters was likeable, but their stories were interesting and their point of view made perfectly understandable when they were able to tell their own stories. A great novel which is also maddening to read for the racism that is described in its pages. ( )
  Smiler69 | May 26, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 112 (next | show all)
Levy's greatest achievement in ''Small Island'' is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals. Gilbert is astonished to discover that although he can reel off the names of England's canals and list the major industries of each English town, most English people can't even find Jamaica on a map. ''How come England did not know me?'' he asks. Hortense's training as a teacher counts for nothing in England, and while she may have won a prize for reciting Keats's ''Ode to a Nightingale'' at school, she can't make herself understood by a London taxi driver.

Levy understands the complex relationship between color and class. Light-skinned Hortense has been brought up as a lady, and she initially despises Gilbert for his coarser manners. She also looks down on Queenie for being less educated than she is. The slow development of Hortense's respect for her husband as she begins to understand the challenges he faces (many of which she will confront herself) is one of the most moving aspects of the book. ''Small Island'' is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope.
added by kidzdoc | editNew York Times, Fatema Ahmed (Apr 3, 2005)
 
Small Island operates on a larger canvas than Levy's previous novels. Set in India, England and Jamaica, it is as far-reaching a work as White Teeth. Yet it is written in a plain, homely style, one that is keen for us to attend to the subtle shifts and twists that its characters undergo. Levy undercuts any assumption that race alone defines them, and is keen to highlight those symmetries and parallels in their life experiences. One can easily see it being turned into a popular drama. It's neither splashy nor experimental, but for thoughtfulness and wry humour cannot be faulted.
added by kidzdoc | editTelegraph, Sukhdev Sandhu (Feb 24, 2004)
 
Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It's honest, skillful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy's big book.
added by kidzdoc | editGuardian, Mike Phillips (Feb 14, 2004)
 
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Epigraph
Never in the field of human conflicts has so much been owed by so many to so few - Winston Churchill
Dedication
For Bill
First words
I thought I’d been to Africa.
Quotations
If a body in its beauty is the work of God then this hideous predicament between his legs was without doubt the work of the devil.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312424671, Paperback)

Andrea Levy's award-winning novel, Small Island, deftly brings two bleak families into crisp focus. First a Jamaican family, including the well-intentioned Gilbert, who can never manage to say or do exactly the right thing; Romeo Michael, who leaves a wake of women in his path; and finally, Hortense, whose primness belies her huge ambition to become English in every way possible. The other unhappy family is English, starting with Queenie, who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher's daughter only to marry a dull banker. As the chapters reverse chronology and the two groups collide and finally mesh, the book unfolds through time like a photo album, and Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with a humor and tenderness that is both authentic and bracing. The book is cinematic in the best way--lighting up London's bombed-out houses and wartime existence with clarity and verve while never losing her character's voice or story. --Meg Halverson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:01 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Returning to England after the war Gilbert Joseph is treated very differently now that he is no longer in an RAF uniform. Joined by his wife Hortense, he rekindles a friendship with Queenie who takes in Jamaican lodgers. Can their dreams of a better life in England overcome the prejudice they face?… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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