Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island 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.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

When Thomas Kinsman asks his mother, July, to write her memoirs, she agrees on the condition that she is allowed to tell her story the way she wants to tell it:

“Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest.”

The Long Song The island with the lush green trees, raucous birds and hot sun is Jamaica, where July is born into slavery on the sugar plantation of Amity. As a young girl, July catches the eye of her master’s spoiled and selfish sister, Caroline Mortimer, and becomes her maid and companion. Kept apart from her mother, a field slave, and renamed ‘Marguerite’ because Caroline likes the name, life is not always easy for July but the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 brings hope that slavery in Jamaica will soon come to an end. And with the arrival of a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, life at Amity could be about to change forever…

I have read other books about slavery but never one that focused specifically on slavery in Jamaica, so The Long Song was something new for me. With July moving from the slave quarters to live with her mistress, we see how slavery and its abolition affected not just the slaves themselves but also the British slave owners and overseers. I liked the fact that July’s story does not just finish with the end of slavery in Jamaica but goes on to describe what happened after that. It’s easy to imagine that things improved instantly as soon as slavery was abolished but that was not necessarily true and July does a good job of showing us how she and the other newly emancipated slaves continued to face hardships and obstacles.

As you’ll be able to tell from the excerpt I quoted at the start of this post, July has a very strong and distinctive narrative style, which suits her lively, mischievous personality. She frequently breaks off in the middle of a chapter to argue with her son, Thomas, over what should or should not be included and at other times she addresses the reader directly. Sometimes she gives us one version of events, then admits that she is not being honest and begins again with a more truthful account. Most of her story is told in the third person, as if July was just somebody she had once known and not actually herself – maybe we’re supposed to assume this made it easier for the older July to discuss the painful things that had happened to her? She also adds a lot of humour to her story which makes it feel much lighter and less harrowing than it could have been.

At first I was intrigued by July’s unique narration; it felt different and unusual. After a few chapters, though, the novelty wore off and I started to find it irritating. I wished she would stop interrupting herself and get on with telling the story! I like this sort of writing in Victorian novels but in this case I thought it felt like a gimmick that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I did still enjoy the book but maybe I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been written in a more conventional style. I have a copy of one of Andrea Levy’s other books to read – Small Island, which is being reissued in a new 10th anniversary edition – and I’ve heard it’s very different, so I’m looking forward to reading that one.