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.

Review: A Rogue’s Life by Wilkie Collins

Frank Softly is a Rogue. Refusing to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, he has tried out a number of different careers since leaving school – and failed at them all. However, he remains optimistic and sees each failure as an opportunity to make a fresh start. Even when he is sent to a debtors’ prison he simply asks himself, “What of that? Who am I that I should object to being in prison, when so many of the royal personages and illustrious characters of history have been there before me?”

While working as a forger of old paintings, Frank meets Alicia Dulcifer in an art gallery and immediately falls in love. Unfortunately even this relationship seems likely to fail, because Alicia is the daughter of the sinister Dr. Dulcifer – a man who lives in a house with bars on the windows, never receives visitors and conducts mysterious experiments in his laboratory. Frank becomes determined to discover Dr. Dulcifer’s secret, at all costs.

As in many Victorian novels, there’s also an inheritance involved: Frank’s sister Annabella will only receive her three thousand pounds if Frank outlives their grandmother Lady Malkinshaw. This leads to some amusing situations as Annabella’s greedy husband desperately tries to prevent Frank from dying!

This was one of Wilkie Collins’ first books to be published (in 1856) and I could tell it was the work of a young, inexperienced writer – the plot was less developed than in his later books and the characters (apart from the Rogue himself) were less memorable. However, his enthusiasm shines through on every page, making this a fun, light-hearted read – but with plenty of suspense and excitement too. Although Frank Softly is dishonest, irresponsible, reckless – and definitely a rogue – he tells his story with so much humour and energy that you can’t help liking him.

Rather changeable this life of mine, was it not? Before I was twenty-five years of age, I had tried doctoring, caricaturing, portrait-painting, old picture-making, and Institution-managing…Surely, Shakespeare must have had me prophetically in his eye, when he wrote about ‘one man in his time playing many parts’. What a character I should have made for him, if he had only been alive now!

While I don’t think I would recommend this as a first introduction to his work, if you have enjoyed any of Collins’ other books there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this one too. And the short length of this book – only 150 pages – makes it a quick, fast-paced read, so anyone who has had trouble getting into one of his longer novels may find this one easier to read.

I’m going to leave you with Wilkie’s own thoughts on this novel, taken from the author’s preface:

The Rogue may surely claim two merits, at least, in the eyes of the new generation – he is never serious for two moments together; and ‘he doesn’t take long to read’.

Review: The Divine Sacrifice by Tony Hays

The Divine Sacrifice is the second in a series of historical mysteries set in Arthurian Britain. Don’t miss my interview with author Tony Hays.

My review:

When an elderly monk is found murdered in his cell at the abbey of Ynys-witrin, King Arthur’s counselor Malgwyn ap Cuneglas is asked to investigate. On their arrival at the abbey, however, Malgwyn and Arthur are surprised to find that St Patrick is also about to arrive from Hibernia in order to root out heresy in the monastery. Is there a connection between the death of old Elafius and the presence of St Patrick at the abbey? As Malgwyn begins to unravel the mystery he discovers something which could threaten not only Arthur but the future of the country.

The Divine Sacrifice can be enjoyed on different levels as an Arthurian story, a historical fiction novel and a murder mystery, although it’s the combination of all three that makes the book so compelling. I have read a lot of mysteries and a lot of historical fiction but this book really stands out as something new and different.

I love the character of Malgwyn, who is one of the most unusual detectives I’ve ever encountered in a book. As one of the other characters in the novel observes, he’s an ‘uncommon man with an uncommon clarity of vision’. We also meet Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and others who will be familiar to anyone with even a basic knowledge of Arthurian legend, athough they are not depicted in the way you might expect. It’s important to understand that this is not a retelling of the famous Arthur legends – it’s actually an original historical mystery with elements of the legends cleverly woven into the story. Arthur is shown here as a powerful leader who is working to unite the warring tribes of post-Roman Britain.
The mystery unfolds at just the right pace and there are enough twists in the story to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end. Tony Hays has obviously done a lot of research on his subject and is able to portray life in 5th century Britain in a realistic and convincing manner, meaning that I came away from the book feeling I knew a little bit more about the time period than I did before.

Although I hadn’t read the first book in the series, The Killing Way, the author provided enough background information relating to the events of the first book that I was quickly able to pick up the threads of the story and understand what was going on. However, I enjoyed The Divine Sacrifice so much I now want to go back and read The Killing Way and I’ll look forward to more books in this series in the future.

Recommended

Genre: Historical Mystery/Pages: 304/Publisher: Forge/Year: 2010/Source: Won ARC in giveaway