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Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Andrea Levy

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3,0261131,878 (3.87)545
Title:Small Island
Authors:Andrea Levy
Info:Review (2004), Hardcover
Collections:Borrowed from library
Tags:england, general fiction, jamaica, saw the tv adaptation, 2013 CC Awards CAT, BMMDI, read in 2013, bbc radio 4 bookclub

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Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)

Recently added byBookish.ae, leselotte, Deern, private library, avere, shellcox, wasesist, DavidSerrell
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Small Island is the story of two Jamaicans who immigrate to England in 1948 and the English couple who become their landlords. The Jamaicans, Gilbert and Hortense, are both well educated but unable to find suitable employment after World War II. Their marriage is one of convenience, not affection, as they each need the other to be able to emigrate. Thinking England will be a land of opportunity, they find it instead a country still struggling to shake off the devastation of war. It is overcrowded, shabby and dirty; there are shortages; jobs are scarce; and, worst of all, racial prejudice seems to have only deepened after the defeat of Hitler.[return][return]The novel is told in four voices, with each chapter bearing the name of its narrator. It also leaps back in time, with about half the chapters being designated as "Before." In such flashbacks we learn that Hortense's upbringing as the illegitimate child of a wealthy man has left her spoiled and haughty, but without family support. We also follow Gilbert's service in the R.A.F., his first visit to England, but also his first experience as the victim of racial prejudice at the hands of the English civilians and, more viciously, the American G.I.'s. [return][return]The English couple are Queenie and Bernard Bligh. Queenie is the unlettered daughter of a butcher, but as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Free of prejudice, she meets and befriends Gilbert during his wartime stay in England. A chance encounter after the war leads to her renting a room to Gilbert at a time when few other English will welcome a black man into their homes. Her husband, Bernard, is still away at the time. A timorous, awkward, narrow-minded bank clerk, Bernard is a poor match for Queenie. It is with relief that she has seen him go off to war in India.[return][return]Queenie's and Bernard's experiences provide a vivid picture of England at war: the Blitz, the buzzbombs and rockets, the shortages and social disruptions. In India Bernard is caught up, not only in the battle against the Japanese and the tropical climate, but in the post-war conflicts between the Indians and British, between Hindus and Muslims, and between political factions within his own army. The racial prejudice inherent in Britain's colonial empire is the other face of the treatment Gilbert and Hortense are subjected to back in the Mother Country.[return][return]Small Island is a rich and moving novel, spiced with humor and peopled with engaging, believable characters. Andrea Levy gives us an insightful, balanced and yet uplifting look at the evils of racial prejudice, the shattering experience of immigration, and the horrors of war. ( )
  Dolmance | Oct 28, 2015 |
What a great story even though the most time I got very angry and therefore had to put it away often. The story is told from the view of four persons; two Jamaicans and two Britons. It jumps between WWII and 1948. Due to being part of the British Empire the Jamaicans were fighting side by side with British people and were honoured and respected. After the war the Jamaican combatants thought that England would welcome them with open arms and tried there luck and future in England. There they had to learn on the hard way that they aren't not only unwelcomed but also treated worse than a dog.
This pure racism made me very angry. Andrea Levy has put a lot of love into the characters. She shows a great understandig and respect for the feeling of both sides. ( )
  Ameise1 | Sep 20, 2015 |
Fun, but a little light. Bernard is the most nuanced, but least likeable, character. The ending was the most interesting bit (with the baby) but it came somewhat out of nowhere.

"Would make a great three-part BBC drama", I thought. Then I found out: it was. Just call me Nostradamus. ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Aug 10, 2015 |
[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 |
Showing 1-5 of 114 (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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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:08 -0400)

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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)

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