Small Island is an international bestseller. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction, The Orange Prize for Fiction: Best of the Best, The Whitbread Novel Award, The Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It has now been adapted for the screen as a coproduction of the BBC and Masterpiece/WGBH Boston.
Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.
Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers-in short, an encapsulation of that most American of experiences: the immigrant's life.
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About the Author
Born in London, England to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy (1956-2019) was the author of Small Island, winner of the Whitbread Award (now Costa Award), the Orange Prize for Fiction (now Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The BBC Masterpiece Classic television adaptation of her novel won an International Emmy for best TV movie/miniseries.
Andrea’s other books include the Man Booker Prize finalist The Long Song, also adapted by the BBC for television, and Fruit of the Lemon, among others.
Read an Excerpt
It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: ‘Oh, Hortense, when I am older …’ all her dreaming began with ‘when I am older’ ‘ … when I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England.’ This is when her voice became high-class and her nose point into the air – well, as far as her round flat nose could – and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s eye. ‘Hortense, in England I will have a big house with a bell at the front door and I will ring the bell.’ And she made the sound, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. ‘I will ring the bell in this house when I am in England. That is what will happen to me when I am older.’
I said nothing at the time. I just nodded and said, ‘You surely will, Celia Langley, you surely will.’ I did not dare to dream that it would one day be I who would go to England. It would one day be I who would sail on a ship as big as a world and feel the sun’s heat on my face gradually change from roasting to caressing. But there was I! Standing at the door of a house in London and ringing the bell. Pushing my finger to hear the ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. Oh, Celia Langley, where were you then with your big ideas and your nose in the air? Could you see me? Could you see me there in London? Hortense Roberts married with a gold ring and a wedding dress in a trunk. Mrs Joseph. Mrs Gilbert Joseph. What you think of that, Celia Langley? There was I in England ringing the doorbell on one of the tallest houses I had ever seen.
But when I pressed this doorbell I did not hear a ring. No ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. I pressed once more in case the bell was not operational. The house, I could see, was shabby. Mark you, shabby in a grand sort of a way. I was sure this house could once have been home to a doctor or a lawyer or perhaps a friend of a friend of the King. Only the house of someone high-class would have pillars at the doorway. Ornate pillars that twisted with elaborate design. The glass stained with coloured pictures as a church would have. It was true that some were missing, replaced by cardboard and strips of white tape. But who knows what devilish deeds Mr Hitler’s bombs had carried out during the war? I pushed the doorbell again when it was obvious no one was answering my call. I held my thumb against it and pressed my ear to the window. A light came on now and a woman’s voice started calling, ‘All right, all right, I’m coming! Give us a minute.’
I stepped back down two steps avoiding a small lump of dog’s business that rested in some litter and leaves. I straightened my coat, pulling it closed where I had unfortunately lost a button. I adjusted my hat in case it had sagged in the damp air and left me looking comical. I pulled my back up straight.
The door was answered by an Englishwoman. A blonde-haired, pinkcheeked Englishwoman with eyes so blue they were the brightest thing in the street. She looked on my face, parted her slender lips and said, ‘Yes?’
‘Is this the household of Mr Gilbert Joseph?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Gilbert Joseph?’ I said, a little slower.
‘Oh, Gilbert. Who are you?’ She pronounced Gilbert so strangely that for a moment I was anxious that I would be delivered to the wrong man.
‘Mr Gilbert Joseph is my husband – I am his wife.’
The woman’s face looked puzzled and pleased all at one time. She looked back into the house, lifting her head as she did. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Didn’t he come to meet you?’
‘I have not seen Gilbert,’ I told her, then went on to ask, ‘but this is perchance where he is aboding?’
At which this Englishwoman said, ‘What?’ She frowned and looked over my shoulder at the trunk, which was resting by the kerbside where it had been placed by the driver of the taxi vehicle. ‘Is that yours?’ she enquired.
‘It’s the size of the Isle of Wight. How did you get it here?’ She laughed a little. A gentle giggle that played round her eyes and mouth.
I laughed too, so as not to give her the notion that I did not know what she was talking about as regards this ‘white island’. I said, ‘I came in a taxicab and the driver assured me that this was the right address. Is this the house of Gilbert Joseph?’
The woman stood for a little while before answering by saying, ‘Hang on here. I’ll see if he’s in his room.’ She then shut the door in my face.
And I wondered how could a person only five feet six inches tall (five feet seven if I was wearing my wedding-shoe heels), how could such a person get to the top of this tall house? Ropes and pulleys was all I could conceive. Ropes and pulleys to hoist me up. We had stairs in Jamaica. Even in our single-storey houses we had stairs that lifted visitors on to the veranda and another that took them into the kitchen. There were stairs at my college, up to the dormitories that housed the pupils on two separate floors. I was very familiar with stairs. But all my mind could conjure as I looked up at this tall, tall house was ropes and pulleys. It was obvious that I had been on a ship for too long.
In Gilbert Joseph’s last letter he had made me a promise that he would be there to meet me when my ship arrived at the dockside in England. He had composed two pages of instructions telling me how he would greet me. ‘I will be there,’ he wrote. ‘You will see me waving my hand with joy at my young bride coming at last to England. I will be jumping up and down and calling out your name with longing in my tone.’ It did occur to me that, as I had not seen Gilbert for six months, he might have forgotten my face. The only way he would be sure of recognising his bride was by looking out for a frowning woman who stared embarrassed at the jumping, waving buffoon she had married.
But it did not matter – he was not there. There was no one who would have fitted his description. The only jumping and waving that was done was by the Jamaicans arriving and leaving the ship. Women who shivered in their church best clothes – their cotton dresses with floppy bows and lace; their hats and white gloves looking gaudy against the grey of the night. Men in suits and bow-ties and smart hats. They jumped and waved. Jumped and waved at the people come to meet them.
Black men in dark, scruffy coats with hand-knitted scarves. Hunched over in the cold. Squinting and straining to see a bag or hair or shoes or a voice or a face that they knew. Who looked feared – their eyes opening a little too wide – as they perused the luggage that had been brought across the ocean and now had to be carried through the streets of London. Greeting excited relatives with the same words: ‘You bring some guava, some rum – you have a little yam in that bag?’
As my feet had set down on the soil of England an Englishwoman approached me. She was breathless. Panting and flushed. She swung me round with a force that sent one of my coat buttons speeding into the crowd with the velocity of a bullet. ‘Are you Sugar?’ she asked me. I was still trying to follow my poor button with the hope of retrieving it later as that coat had cost me a great deal of money. But this Englishwoman leaned close in to my face and demanded to know, ‘Are you Sugar?’
I straightened myself and told her, ‘No, I am Hortense.’
She tutted as if this information was in some way annoying to her. She took a long breath and said, ‘Have ?ou seen Sugar? She’s one of you. She’s coming to be my nanny and I am a little later than I thought. You must know her. Sugar. Sugar?’
I thought I must try saying sugar with those vowels that make the word go on for ever. Very English. Sugaaaar. And told this woman politely, ‘No I am sorry I am not acquainted with …’
But she shook her head and said, ‘Ohh,’ before I had a chance to open any of my vowels. This Englishwoman then dashed into a crowd where she turned another woman round so fast that this newly arrived Jamaican, finding herself an inch away from a white woman shouting, ‘Sugaaar, Sugaaar,’ into her face, suddenly let out a loud scream.
It was two hours I waited for Gilbert. Two hours watching people hugging up lost relations and friends. Laughing, wiping handkerchiefs over tearful eyes. Arguing over who will go where. Men lifting cases, puffing and sweating, on to their shoulders. Women fussing with hats and pulling on gloves. All walking off into this cold black night through an archway that looked like an open mouth. I looked for my button on the ground as the crowds thinned. But it would not have been possible to find anything that small in the fading light.
There was a white man working, pushing a trolley – sometimes empty, sometimes full. He whistled, as he passed, a tune that made his head nod. I thought, This working white man may have some notion as to how I could get to my destination. I attracted his attention by raising my hand. ‘Excuse me, sir, I am needing to get to Nevern Street. Would you perchance know where it is?’
This white man scratched his head and picked his left nostril before saying, ‘I can’t take you all the way on me trolley, love.’ It occurred to me that I had not made myself understood or else this working white man could not have thought me so stupid as to expect him, with only his two-wheeled cart, to take me through the streets of London. What – would I cling to his back with my legs round his waist? ‘You should get a taxi,’ he told me, when he had finished laughing at his joke.
I stared into his face and said, ‘Thank you, and could you be so kind as to point out for me the place where I might find one of these vehicles?’
The white man looked perplexed. ‘You what, love?’ he said, as if I had been speaking in tongues.
It took me several attempts at saying the address to the driver of the taxi vehicle before his face lit with recognition. ‘I need to be taken to number twenty-one Nevern Street in SW five. Twenty-one Nevern Street. N-e-v-e-r-n S-t-r-e-e-t.’ I put on my best accent. An accent that had taken me to the top of the class in Miss Stuart’s English pronunciation competition. My recitation of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ had earned me a merit star and the honour of ringing the school bell for one week.
But still this taxi driver did not understand me. ‘No, sorry, dear. Have you got it written down or something? On a piece of paper? Have you got it on a piece of paper?’ I showed him the letter from my husband, which was clearly marked with the address. ‘Oh, Nevern Street – twenty-one. I’ve got you now.’
There was a moon. Sometimes there, sometimes covered by cloud. But there was a moon that night – its light distorting and dissolving as my breath steamed upon the vehicle window. ‘This is the place you want, dear. Twenty-one Nevern Street,’ the taxi driver said. ‘Just go and ring the bell. You know about bells and knockers? You got them where you come from? Just go and ring the bell and someone’ll come.’ He left my trunk by the side of the road. ‘I’m sure someone inside will help you with this, dear. Just ring the bell.’ He mouthed the last words with the slow exaggeration I generally reserved for the teaching of small children. It occurred to me then that perhaps white men who worked were made to work because they were fools.
I did not see what now came through the door, it came through so fast. It could have been a large dog the way it leaped and bounded towards me. It was only when I heard, ‘Hortense,’ uttered from its mouth that I realised it was my husband. ‘Hortense. You here! You here at last, Hortense!’
I folded my arms, sat on my trunk and averted my eye. He stopped in front of me. His arms still open wide ready for me to run into. ‘Don’t Hortense me, Gilbert Joseph.’
His arms slowly rested to his sides as he said, ‘You no pleased to see me, Hortense?’
I quoted precisely from the letter. ‘“I will be at the dockside to meet you. You will see me there jumping and waving and calling your name with longing in my tone.” ’
‘How you find this place, Hortense?’ was all the man said.
‘Without your help, Gilbert Joseph, that’s how I find this place. With no help from you. Where were you? Why you no come to meet me? Why you no waving and calling my name with longing in your tone?’
He was breathless as he began, ‘Hortense, let me tell you. I came to the dock but there was no ship. So they tell me to come back later when the ship will arrive. So I go home and take the opportunity of fixing the place up nice for when you come …’
His shirt was not buttoned properly. The collar turned up at one side and down at the other. There were two stray buttons that had no holes to fit in. The shirt was only tucked into his trousers around the front, at the back it hung out like a mischievous schoolboy’s. One of his shoelaces was undone. He looked ragged. Where was the man I remembered? He was smart: his suit double-breasted, his hair parted and shiny with grease, his shoes clean, his fingernails short, his moustache neat and his nose slender. The man who stood jabbering in front of me looked dark and rough. But he was Gilbert, I could tell. I could tell by the way the fool hopped about as he pronounced his excuses.
‘So I was just going to go to the dock again. But then here you are. You turn up at the door. Oh, man, what a surprise for me! Hortense! You here at last!’
It was then I noticed that the Englishwoman who had answered the door was looking at us from the top of the steps. She called from on high, ‘Gilbert, can I shut the door now, please? It’s letting in a terrible draught.’
And he called to her in a casual tone, ‘Soon come.’
So I whispered to him, ‘Come, you want everyone in England to know our business?’
The Englishwoman was still looking at me when I entered the hallway. Perusing me in a fashion as if I was not there to see her stares. I nodded to her and said, ‘Thank you for all your help with finding my husband. I hope it did not inconvenience you too much.’ I was hoping that in addressing her directly she would avert her eye from me and go about her business. But she did not. She merely shrugged and continued as before. I could hear Gilbert dragging at my trunk. We both stood listening to him huffing and puffing like a broken steam train.
Then he ran through the door, saying, ‘Hortense, what you have in that trunk – your mother?’
As the Englishwoman was still looking at us I smiled instead of cussing and said, ‘I have everything I will need in that trunk, thank you, Gilbert.’
‘So you bring your mother, then,’ Gilbert said. He broke into his laugh, which I remembered. A strange snorting sound from the back of his nose, which caused his gold tooth to wink. I was still smiling when he started to rub his hands and say, ‘Well, I hope you have guava and mango and rum and—’
‘I hope you’re not bringing anything into the house that will smell?’ the Englishwoman interrupted.
This question erased the smile from my face. Turning to her I said, ‘I have only brought what I—’
But Gilbert caught my elbow. ‘Come, Hortense,’ he said, as if the woman had not uttered a word. ‘Come, let me show you around.’
I followed him up the first stairs and heard the woman call, ‘What about the trunk, Gilbert? You can’t leave it where it is.’
Gilbert looked over my shoulder to answer her, smiling: ‘Don’t worry, Queenie. Soon come, nah, man.’
I had to grab the banister to pull myself up stair after stair. There was hardly any light. Just one bulb so dull it was hard to tell whether it was giving out light or sucking it in. At every turn on the stairs there was another set of steep steps, looking like an empty bookshelf in front of me. I longed for those ropes and pulleys of my earlier mind. I was groping like a blind man at times with nothing to light the way in front of me except the sound of Gilbert still climbing ahead. ‘Hortense, nearly there,’ he called out, like Moses from on top of the mountain. I was palpitating by the time I reached the door where Gilbert stood grinning, saying: ‘Here we are.’
‘What a lot of stairs. Could you not find a place with fewer stairs?’
We went into the room. Gilbert rushed to pull a blanket over the unmade bed. Still warm I was sure. It was obvious to me he had just got out of it. I could smell gas. Gilbert waved his arms around as if showing me a lovely view. ‘This is the room,’ he said.
All I saw were dark brown walls. A broken chair that rested one uneven leg on the Holy Bible. A window with a torn curtain and Gilbert’s suit – the double-breasted one – hanging from a rail on the wall.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘show me the rest, then, Gilbert.’ The man just stared. ‘Show me the rest, nah. I am tired from the long journey.’ He scratched his head. ‘The other rooms, Gilbert. The ones you busy making so nice for me you forget to come to the dock.’
Gilbert spoke so softly I could hardly hear. He said, ‘But this is it.’
‘I am sorry?’ I said.
‘This is it, Hortense. This is the room I am living.’
Three steps would take me to one side of this room. Four steps could take me to another. There was a sink in the corner, a rusty tap stuck out from the wall above it. There was a table with two chairs – one with its back broken – pushed up against the bed. The armchair held a shopping bag, a pyjama top, and a teapot. In the fireplace the gas hissed with a blue flame.
‘Just this?’ I had to sit on the bed. My legs gave way. There was no bounce underneath me as I fell.
‘Just this? This is where you are living? Just this?’
‘Yes, this is it.’ He swung his arms around again, like it was a room in a palace.
‘Just this? Just this? You bring me all this way for just this?’
The man sucked his teeth and flashed angry eyes in my face. ‘What you expect, woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? You should stay with your mamma if you want it nice. There been a war here. Everyone live like this.’
He looked down at me, his badly buttoned chest heaving. The carpet was threadbare in a patch in the middle and there was a piece of bread lying on it. He sucked his teeth again and walked out the room. I heard him banging down the stairs. He left me alone.
He left me alone to stare on just this.
SMALL ISLAND. Copyright © 2004 by Andrea Levy. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Table of ContentsThe Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Small Island, winner of both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a tour de force. Spirited and improbably funny, it offers the account of two very ordinary couples in postwar London. Hortense arrives from Jamaica in 1948 to make a home with her new husband, Gilbert. But in a place where the buildings are taller, the weather colder, and the sky more gray than anything she's experienced, she begins to question the wisdom of her decision. It is Gilbert, her new husband and a man she barely knows, who reminds her why it is she has come so far. A war veteran struggling to make a home in the city, Gilbert questions his own resolve when he finds not a hero's welcome but prejudice, contempt, and nearly insurmountable odds. But he is befriended by Queenie, the couple's white landlady, whose own life is upended when her husband Bernard, long thought dead, returns from the war with a head full of memories and an aching heart.
This quartet of voices relates a story of the immigrant experience at once deeply intimate and richly expansive. With an incomparable eye for detail and nuance, an uncanny ear for the oddities lurking in language, and a genuine affection for the weaknesses of her all-too-human characters, Levy has fashioned a wholly engrossing sprawl of a novel that never fails to delight and entertain. (Summer 2005 Selection)
Reading Group Guide
1. In the "Prologue," how does Levy show that perception of race is often a result of misperception? Which other scenes in the novel reveal similar racial misperceptions? What are they and how do they lead to conflict?
2. Small Island is alternately narrated by four charactersQueenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard. How does this narrative style contribute to the drama of the story? Did you find certain narrators more compelling? If you were to choose one narrator to tell the story, which would you chose? Why?
3. Do you think it is significant that the novel begins with Queenie and ends with Hortense? Why?
4. In chapter 6, Hortense tells Gilbert that "Celia's mother is not well" (p 78). What do you think are Hortense's motives for saying this? Do you think she is aware of her motives? Why? If you were Celia, would you respond differently or the same as she did? Explain.
5. It could be said that all the charactersQueenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernardare "flawed." Explain. Considering the historical context of the story, are certain characters' flaws more forgivable? Why? How does each of character evolve throughout the story? Which characters evolve most? Explain.
6. Consider the sexuality of each of the main characters. Which of the four characters' sexuality undergoes the biggest transformation? Which the least? Compare Queenie's relationship with Michael and Bernard's relationship with George "Maxi" Maximillion. How are they different? In what ways are they similar?
7. How have social attitudes toward race changed since 1948? In what ways might they be the same? Compare Levy's depiction of racial attitudes in England versus the United States. Do they seem different? If so, how?
8. On page 145, Gilbert observes "Everyone fighting a war hates. All must conjure a list of demons. The enemy." What do you think he means? How might this statement apply to our own era?
9. Consider Elwood's plea to his cousin Gilbert about joining the British army: "Man, this is a white man's war. Why you wanna lose your life for a white man? For Jamaica, yes. To have your own country, yes. That is worth a fight. . . I join you then, man. But you think winning this war is going to change anything for me and you" (p 106). Do you agree with Elwood? Why? Do you think Gilbert made the right choice? Why? What would you have done if you were in his situation? Explain. 10. Gilbert is a black man whose father is Jewish. Do you see any parallels between racial prejudice and anti-Semitism in the world during WWII and today? Explain. Have you or anyone you know been forced to choose between two socially determined identities, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion? Explain. 11. Do you agree with Queenie's decision concerning her child? Why? If you were in the same situation, what would you have done in 1948? Today? Explain.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
And I can think of many more adjectives to describe this remarkable story, which is about the experience of Caribbean people who immigrated to Britain after the 1940s war. The author's writing style is fantastic. The story is told in four different voices from the point of view of four different people. As a Caribbean person myself, while at times I was angry, other times I found the story dropdead hilarious. Beaurocratic red tape is alluded to and throughout the squalor and indignity, there is a warmth and even hope in this story. Well done!
The book was beautiful. Slow in a few places, but wonderfully written. Touching, thought-provoking, funny, maddening, you have to have an opinion about it. What surprised me the most was the most interesting character turned out to be, for me, Bernard. The end of the book had a great twist and this will make me read all the author's books. Surprised this wasn't nominated for a Pulitzer. Very, very, very worth your while!!
Small Island is a beautiful story told by four different narrators, two Jamaican and two British. All four are trying to make sense of post-WWII Britain and how they fit into a slowly rebuilding England. The Jamaicans leave their homeland in search of greater opportunity, a small garden, a bell at the front door; but what they find awaiting them in their Mother Country is much different than what they anticipated. She's not quite the loving mother they thought she would be. All four of the narrators' lives become intermingled with the others in a moving story about love, loss, opportunity, and starting afresh after a tumultuous journey.
This book is amazing - not just because it should be a reference in Jamaican literature - not just because it should be a staple in any library - not only because it is bigger than the small island mind that it portrays here, but because of the style is pure genius and the writing is clean, beautiful and mesmerizing. I doubt she will be able to top herself any time soon. Andrea is the Queen of literature. I'm about to read Fruit of the Lemon - i think that's what it's called. I won't get my hopes up for it to be as good as this.
This book is a beautiful tale of four vivid characters. I was drawn in and could not help but keep turning the pages to know what was next. I've recommended it to friends and family who have all reported similar experiences.
I am an avid reader, and I found this book to be possibly the best I've ever read. Ms. Levy is a genius. Every sentence, much less paragraph and chapter is a work of art. Character development is beautiful, and the interrelationship of the characters is fascinating. I never wanted to put it down, and I certainly didn't want it to end. This book should be at the top of everyone's list - I would give it 10 stars if I could.
I had to purchase this book for an English course I took at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The story is such an interesting read and the format is easy to get into as well as the pages are unique with how they're cut. I loved this book so much that I bought another to give as a gift to someone close! It's a great edition to any library.
After PBS aired the first half of this story I was left hanging wondering what happened to the characters. Glad I was found this Nook book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am a fan of novels that use history as a background. I learn how people lived during those times of war, depression etc. This novel was a great read.
Small Island is the amazing story on the first wave of Jamaican immigrants who arrived in Britain after WWII. With beautifully grafted characters and a gripping story line, the narrative takes you through different cultures, people and life styles, and through the dialogue, we are given access to the souls of the characters in their moments of weakness, doubts, fears and dreams. The plot is fantastic and the pace of the novel is so fast and gripping that you will end up finishing the book before you realize it. If you are into Cosmopolitan or multi-cultural fiction, then get this novel.
Love stories that switch between characters view points and time/locations. It keeps my interest and makes for more complex characters as your judgements are changed experience more of the characters past and future during the novel. Also a useful reminder of the casual and open racism based often on ignorance in England that was the norm in the 40's and 50's And the support that the non white empire gave England. But also useful to remember that there was from the start individuals who saw humanity first and colour last. Yet the core of the appeal is that we are pulled into a well observed world with characters that we shed a tear with or feel angry about when mistreated.
I suspect this is a book that is better to listen to than to read yourself. The audio production of this book was so well done. The narrators were excellent and the British and Jamaican accents added such flavour to the story that it was quite entertaining to listen to. The story line is rather flat but the writing is quite nice and the audio production made the writing a lovely feature of the book.
This fine novel from 1994 follows the pre and post WWII fortunes of two marriages of convenience; one black, one white. Levy constantly switches perspective in terms of time -¿before¿ and `1948¿ - and point of view with first person narratives from each of the four protagonists- Gilbert, Hortense in the black corner; Queenie and Bernard in the white.The former couple are from the small island of Jamaica, while Queenie and Bernard are from the small island of Britain.At times this structure gives the novel a overly rigid structure and I found myself impatient to read the more compelling black experience and irritated by the time devoted to the more predicable views of the small minded Bernard.The perspective of Hortense is the one which comes across as the most poignant and significant voice of this foursome. Having done a 3 year residential training course in Kingston, Hortense arrives in London naively believing this will qualify her to teach in the UK. She is a proud and determined woman with skin ¿the colour of warm honey¿ and a haughty disposition. She likes to think her English is superior to the ¿low-class slurring garble¿ of Cockneys but comes out with archaic constructions like ¿this is perchance where he is abiding¿ which obviously makes communication with the locals a less than smooth ride.Her marriage to Gilbert is her idea because it allows her the possibility to leave Jamaica, something that would have been impossible on her own. She does not intend that sexual relations be part of the deal. On their wedding night when Gilbert stands naked before her she is repulsed : ¿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¿. Gilbert does not force himself on her; proving that he may be a rough and ready type but he¿s a decent man at heart.Queenie¿s marriage to Bernard is consummated but their relationship is nevertheless devoid of passion. He is seen as good match solely through his lower middle class white collar status (he¿s a bank clerk) - a step up from the poorer working class background of Queenie. Bernard¿s racism is reinforced by his wartime experiences in India where he regards all the locals as thieves, beggars or murderers. In his absence, Queenie is the bridge between the black-white divide, taking in black lodgers (and a lover) in defiance of her bigoted neighbours. Hers is a rare voice of racial tolerance.For we are left in no doubt that the consensus among the British at that time is that a white skin denoted civilisation while blacks belong to the servant classes. Contemptuous put-downs like `coon¿, `nigger¿, darkies¿ `coolies¿ and `wogs¿ are routinely deployed, laying to rest any notion that the race issue was a problem confined to America.It¿s clear that non-whites were tolerated while fighting the common enemy of Nazism yet otherwise routinely branded as impurities within the `master race¿(sic) of the British Empire.In one pivotal sequence in the novel Queenie and a Jamaican RAF man go to the cinema together and he is told that he must sit with all the other blacks in the back rows so as not to disturb the white folk. It¿s quite shocking to think that such open discrimination was so commonplace in Britain, quite a departure from the clichéd historical accounts that portray Brits as models of fair play and justice.Frequently Gilbert and Hortense encounter children and adults who point, poke and gibe them as though there were freaks or wild animals. At one point Gilbert longs to return to Jamaica where he would feel normal again:: ¿No gapes, no gawps, no cussing, no looking quickly away as if seeing something unsavoury. Just a meeting as unremarkable as passing your mummy in the kitchen. What a thing was this to wish for. That a person regarding me should think nothing. What a forlorn desire to seek indifference¿.The plot is somewhat contrived but Levy¿s book is highly readable and a vivid portrait of black experie
Truly a great read, a beautifully written insight into the workings of marriage, fidelity, love and lovelessness in the context of post war Britain and the arrival of black folks in numbers for the first time to the shores of Albion. An illustration of the innate decency of the English notwithstanding their occasional struggles with racist motivations.
What if the "mother country" didn't treat you as her child at all? This is one of the many questions tackled in Small Island. Other issues faced are fidelity in times of war, manner and behaviour, acceptance and racial equality. Funny yet moving, this is a well-written book that makes you think.
Small Island was recently made into a television series. Like most book to TV/film adaptations, I haven¿t seen it. I tend to reach for the book first, then look into seeing the show. Small Island is also a book that¿s won a lot of prizes ¿ the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers¿ Prize. It¿s a good book, with an original idea.I can¿t say that I can recall reading other books about Jamaica, let alone Jamaicans in WWII England and beyond. Levy has taken her own history (her parents moved to England from Jamaica) and made it into an engaging story. The story focuses on two husband and wife pairs: Hortense and Gilbert, newly arrived from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard, an English couple who Hortense and Gilbert rent their room from. But all is not well ¿ Bernard is absent and nobody knows why, Hortense and Gilbert don¿t seem to get along and Queenie has her secrets. What are they?Levy tells the story by moving back and forth between 1948 (when the story is set) and Before, giving us each character¿s backstory and unravelling some of the mysteries occurring in 1948. The `Before¿ sections deal primarily with World War II for Gilbert (he was in the RAF), Bernard (also in the RAF in India) and Queenie (who was dealing with the London bombings). They also delve back into childhood and early adult years, revealing how the two couples came to meet and why things are so awkward. In fact, the majority of the book takes place in the past ¿ I¿d be interested to see how the television series copes with this ¿ moving forward and back like the novel or telling the story in a linear fashion. A lot of the suspense comes from not knowing a character¿s past, but catching glimpses of problems in 1948. Back in 1948, there are a few bombshells where my mouth was hanging open in surprise ¿ I didn¿t see those twists and turns!The characters in Small Island are flawed. Bernard is very racist by today¿s standards, while Queenie is a lot more open-minded. Hortense is very particular with her visions of what England should be like, while Gilbert rolls with the majority of unfair things that happen to him. It was interesting to see the Jamaican couple¿s perceptions of what they believed England to be like and the reality they were faced with, not to mention the racism from the English and Americans. The English are quite ignorant in their knowledge of Jamaica, to Hortense and Gilbert¿s disgust (England is so important to them, why is Jamaica not so?); it made me think if other countries in the Commonwealth suffer from the same inflated image problem (can you tell me much about Australia?) Which country is the `small island¿ with all its connotations?This was thought provoking and original as well as an entertaining book ¿ thoroughly worthy of the awards it won. Well done Andrea Levy.
I find this book hard to judge. It started well and came together nicely at the end. However most of the 530 pages really where four separate stories about four people whose lives happen to be linked for a short time. Each personal story has its own interest and gives a flavour of the times (1940s Britain). Overall: interesting read and worth the effort to see the story come together, just not gripping enough for me to warrent any more stars.
I found this story of Jamaican immigrants trying to make a life in post-war England very moving. The contrast they find between the 'mother England' they were taught about as children and the reality is stark and touchingly portrayed. well-written, with engaging characters.
I really enjoyed this book. The characters are brilliantly created by Andrea Levy and I could almost hear them speaking the words as I read the story. Haughty Hortense, loveable Gilbert ,( both from Jamaica), enigmatic Queenie and dour Bernard, all with their own story to tell of lives not quite matching their dreams. Alternating chapters were narrated by each of the main characters making for the feeling of intimacy between them and the reader. The story, whilst at times very sad also had some very light humorous parts, usually provided by Gilbert. Racism is the ugly thread that runs through the novel and it leaves me ashamed of my fellow man at times, that someone can be treated so badly, simply because of the colour of his skin.I cannot imagine anyone not liking this book and cannot wait to start on Andrea Levy's new book, The Long Song.
In the end this was a fabulous and unputdownable book. The only thing wrong with it was the beginning which took me a long time to get into. It's the kind of twisted up in time and viewpoint storytelling that I like a lot, but before things start getting twisted I was struggling to stay interested.
This is a special book that had me laughing out loud, and then there were the tears ¿ it is funny, and it is profound, and I recommend it highly.
¿Yes sir, British, and so is your mother?¿ he mumbled, in a hesitant way that made me wonder whether anything I was saying was going into his head or merely circling around it searching for somewhere solid to land." p 157
This is my second reading of Small Island, the first being when the book first came out in hardback. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed by it then, but this time round I really enjoyed it. It's the story of four people, Queenie Bligh and her husband Bernard, and Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph. Gilbert is a Jamaican, stationed in England during the war, after joining the RAF to fight for his mother country. He met Queenie whilst he was over here and, after the war has ended and he has made the decision to return to England with his new wife Hortense, he looks Queenie up to take up board and lodgings in her house in Earl's Court. Bernard isn't very pleased as he has a real prejudice against black people but, as he didn't return home from the war until three years after fighting has ended, he can't really complain. There's a lot more to the story than this, but I don't think I need to go into that in great detail. The story is fairly well known and the recent TV adaptation (very well done, incidentally) will have increased the book's popularity. The story is split into sections set in 1948, and sections for each of the four characters from 'before'. Hortense's section is first and, as she's a fairly unlikeable character for most of the book, this bit dragged slightly for me. However, once I moved on to Gilbert's story and to Queenie's I was much more involved with the storyline and the characters. The racial prejudices portrayed in the book are quite stark, and it's hard to believe the book is set only a generation or two ago, given Britain's current multi-cultural society. Andrea Levy has written a gem of a book, and one which I think will really stand the test of time as a work of literary fiction, and also as a social commentary. It's definitely a book that's well worth reading.
I would probably not picked this book up but a librarian reccommended it. I really enjoyed it. The accents by the very talented reader really made it come alive. It was a little slow to start but rapidly got better. There are some fantastic scenes that I just laughed so hard in - especially the scene when Hortense first arrives from Jamaica.
What a wonderful sweeping read! I so enjoyed this wonderful 2004 Orange Prize Winner. Small Island has four protagonists/ narrators. Each of them tells their story from their unique experiences and personalities. Queenie is a woman who is relatively easy going and lives in England pre World War 2 - and marries Bernard. Bernard is much older man, staid and difficult . He lives with his aging father. Eventually Bernard heads out to India as part of the RAF, leaving Queenie behind to look after his father and survive the London bombings of WW2.Hortense and Gilbert come to England from a completly different background and set of circumstances .Gilbert has lived as a somewhat happy go lucky fellow in Jamaica. By contrast, Hortense, also Jamaican, has been brought up by a caucasion family , and has been sent to school by the family that took her in as a child. When the caucasion family falls on hard times - Hortense is sent packing to make a life for herself. Hortense is a proud person. She barely knows Gilbert, but when she discovers that Gilbert is going to England to fight with England as part of the Commonwealth, Hortense pays Gilbert's way to England and marries him purely as a way to get to England in the hopes of a better life.Many shocks and conflicts await all parties in the story. Racial prejudice within the Army itself and racial and class tensions and prejudices with in England serve to futher make life difficult for all during WW2.To say more would spoil the plot. But all of these threads eventually come together, and we get an insightful look into Jamica and England during and before WW2 , as well as an inside look into the four different perspectives of each protagonist.This is sweeping book- crossing times, cultures, and countries. Conversely, it is so personal as each protagonist tells his or her story . While the topic matter is serious, Andrea Levy never gets bogged down with over sentimentality , and she injects a certain amount of levity. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful story. It's a " cracking good read".
An impressively written depiction of the Jamaican/British experience of WWII and the years immediately after. Some scenes of astonishing violence partway through. The ignorance displayed by the British characters towards the Jamaican arrivals was toe-curling but I have no doubt this was an authentic account. A worthy prize winner.