Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.
Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.
Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.
Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.
I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.
Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.