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Small Island (2004)

by Andrea Levy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,9811403,007 (3.89)611
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh's neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn't know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It's desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door. Gilbert's wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.… (more)
  1. 71
    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. 30
    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 611 mentions

English (138)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  All languages (140)
Showing 1-5 of 138 (next | show all)
So I'm reading this book, and I start finding myself spending a lot more time scrolling aimlessly on Reddit rather than reading my book; this is a red flag.

One of the problems is that the book starts off with Hortense narrating, and she is a truly unlikeable character, just off-putting in the extreme. Then from her experiences we switch to Gilbert's, which are full of racism and very difficult to read (I know, I can't read about what other people lived through, I'm horrible). By the time it switched over to Queenie's chapters I was not getting any pleasure from reading this book, and was not really interested in what she might add to the mix. It was obvious that things were just going to be shit for these people, and they were not interesting enough to make me sit through that. I made it about halfway through the book, and most of that was because I was unconsciously afraid I would look like a racist if I didn't read and finish this book. Then I remembered that reading is my hobby, and reading (or not reading) something out of fear of what others might think is sick. So I returned the book to the library and grooved on.
  blueskygreentrees | Jul 30, 2023 |
Character-driven historical fiction set in 1948 (and flashing back to “Before”) about two mismatched couples, Britons Bernard and Queenie, and Jamaicans Gilbert and Hortense. It tells a story of the migration of the two Jamaicans to post-WWII London, and the differences between their expectations and the realities. Though Gilbert has served in the RAF, fighting in WWII for the “Mother Country,” he and Hortense experience racism and intolerance.

In Jamaica, Hortense dreams of living in England, where she believes she will have a much better life. She agrees to fund Gilbert’s journey in return for his promise to send for her once he gets settled in London. Gilbert aspires to law school. He is educated but can only find work as a driver. Queenie suffers through the Blitz in London. She takes in Caribbean tenants, including Gilbert, to earn rental income. Bernard’s military service takes him to India, where he endures a variety of traumatic ordeals. When he fails to return, Queenie decides he has died in the war.

The strength of this novel lies in the characters. Levy weaves together multiple voices into a thought-provoking narrative that sheds light on the history of race and class in Britain. Each of the four tells his or her story in first person, so the reader becomes well-acquainted with them. Some are more likeable than others, but all feel authentic. The writing is richly detailed, providing a vivid sense of what life was like at the time in England, India, and Jamaica. Parts of this story are gut-wrenching and engender a feeling of outrage at the racial hatred directed toward the Jamaican characters. The author uses sarcastic humor to help develop the characters’ relationships and provide a break between harsh scenes. The ending is particularly emotional and well-crafted, providing a ray of hope for the future. It should appeal to those interested in modern classics or the history of multiculturalism in England.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Set in the years past World War II, a Jamaican immigrant faces racism in Great Britain. While it's not an easy read, it's an important one because it shows racism occurred in many places around the globe--not just in America. ( )
  thornton37814 | Sep 25, 2022 |
This was a difficult read for me, primarily because of Levy's handling of racism in Britain. But that's not necessarily a bad thing - it's important to look at the past, as ugly as it might be, and I liked getting the opportunity to see things from a British perspective as an American. The contrast between the frankly revolting attitude of Bernard (the American sentiment) juxtaposed with Queenie's (British) well-meaning but ultimately just as harmful assumptions was interesting.

The sections about Bernard were my least favorite of all, and at first I would have called it a fault of the novel, but now I wonder if that was Levy's intention - he certainly seems to aggravate everyone he comes into contact with, so perhaps the reader is meant to be just one of many. I found the last quarter or so of the novel to be a slog as a result, and I almost wish Bernard had been replaced with another character entirely.

I'll admit I was put off at the beginning with how Levy attempted to capture and describe accents. I can't say for sure how accurate it is, so I'll leave that for someone else, but I personally don't care for that technique in general. Slurs are used incredibly frequently which, while realistic, can also be a turn-off, and sometimes I just needed to put the book down for a little while and go do something else for a bit to not feel quite so gross. Ultimately, however, I'm glad I stuck this one out, although I can't say I enjoyed the read or would read it again. ( )
1 vote bumblybee | Jan 5, 2022 |
After WWII the story of returning soldiers. Jamaican serviceman Gilbert and local Bernard connected through Queenie. It is the story of Hamaicans wanting to make a new life in Britain but s as Leo for locals who have to adjust to these newcomers. An immigration story that still goes on today.
this novel is well written and interesting. ( )
  Smits | Dec 4, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 138 (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)
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrea Levyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bonneville, HughNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Duncan, SandraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Faure, FrédéricTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haughton, RichardPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
James-Young, SandraNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nestor, EddieNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robben, BernhardÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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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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Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh's neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn't know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It's desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door. Gilbert's wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.

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