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.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian people who have very different experiences of immigration. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria as a young woman to complete her studies in America. Thirteen years later she is still there, having established a successful career for herself as a blogger, but she has now made the decision to go home. Before she returns to Lagos, Ifemelu goes to an African hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, to have her hair braided – a process which takes six hours, giving her time to reflect on all the things she has learned and observed during her years in America.

Obinze, who was Ifemelu’s boyfriend before she left Nigeria, also has dreams of going to America but is unable to obtain a visa and ends up working in London as an illegal immigrant. Obinze and Ifemelu are eventually reunited in Lagos, but will their love have survived so many years of separation?

As promised on the book cover, there is a love story to be found in Americanah, but this is not the main focus of the novel. The focus is on Ifemelu and her life in America, with several chapters following Obinze and his experiences in England. On arriving in the country that will be her home for the next thirteen years, Ifemelu faces a lot of challenges and difficulties, ranging from finding a job to learning how to cook hot dogs! She has many encounters with examples of racism (sometimes very subtle and sometimes much more obvious) and at the other end of the scale, people who are trying too hard to avoid talking about race because they’re afraid that they might cause offence. All of this gives Ifemelu plenty of material for her blog, which she calls Raceteenth, or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black.

Some excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog posts are included in the book and are fascinating to read, particularly when she writes about the differences between being a black American and a non-American black person. Something I found interesting was Ifemelu’s comment that “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” This is in contrast to her cousin, Dike, who leaves Nigeria with his mother as a very young child and so has a very different perspective on life.

While I didn’t love Americanah quite as much as I’d hoped to, it was full of insightful observations and it’s a book that I would recommend to everyone, whatever your race, nationality or skin colour. As a white person, I confess that many of the aspects of race discussed in the novel are things that have never even occurred to me. So, as a commentary on race and immigration, I thought this book was excellent – the best I’ve read on these subjects. The various devices Adichie uses (blog posts, discussions at dinner parties, the conversations of the women working in the hair salon) give her an opportunity to explore important issues in an interesting and often witty way rather than just lecturing the reader.

Purely as a novel, though, I thought Americanah was less successful. It felt a lot longer than it really needed to be, considering the plot is not a particularly complex one, and while I was interested in following Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s separate storylines, I found I didn’t really care whether they got back together at the end of the book or not. I think for me personally this is a book I enjoyed on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but probably the reason why, of the two books I’ve now read by Adichie, I prefer Half of a Yellow Sun to this one.