Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Picador ($14)

Author's Website:

(It was a recent review on Nomadica's blog that prompted me to pick this book off my shelf, dust it off and read it)

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2004 and the Whitbread Prize the same year, this novel by Andrea Levy takes place in post-war Britain and is told through the point of view of four narrators Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph, Queenie and Bernard Bligh. Hortense and Gilbert are from Jamaica. Gilbert, intensely patriotic to "mother country" England, travels to London and joins England's forces in its war against Germany. Hortense, a cultured school teacher, sensing Gilbert could be her ticket out of poverty-racked Jamaica, decides to marry him and follows him to London several months after the war. Unfortunately, London isn't anything like Hortense imagined. The English, instead of being grateful for the service provided by the Caribbean men in the war against Hitler, resent the new immigrants, or "darkies" as they call them. Hortense, along with Gilbert, find England an extremely racist society, for instance, while walking on the sidewalk they are expected to step onto the road to make way for a white person. They also had to get used to cries of "Golliwog, golliwog" when out on the streets!

Ofcourse, there are readers who have made the observation that perhaps this book deals with racism in reverse, in that the Jamican characters are treated more charitably than the English, and not always deservingly so.

Queenie is a working class Londoner. Although white, she has been a little in love with Africa ever since she encountered an African display at a "British Empire Exhibition" when she was a little girl. During the war, Queenie finds it difficult to meet ends meet and much to the consternation of her racist neighbors, takes Gilbert and Hortense in as lodgers. Bernard is Queenie's husband and he was a soldier in India during the war.

THe story is wonderfully written - warm and funny at times, desperately depressing at others but it is almost always engaging. The three main themes of the book are the migrant experience, racism and integration, and within those themes you learn about the class system which prevailed in Britain at the time, the British Empire's treatment of the inhabitants of its Caribbean and Indian colonies and America's segregation of black GIs . Also, fascinatingly, the novel moves back through the war years, showing the sheer awfulness of war...

While I enjoyed the novel and felt like I learned so much, I will have to admit the author lost me as a reader in the last quarter which is mostly devoted to Bernard's narrative; of all the characters, I like Bernard the least because he comes across as a weak person, arrogant only because he thinks as an Englishman he is superior to the "darkies". Having to read his point of view broke the sweet harmonious relationship I as a reader had with the three other strong characters as they told their intertwining stories.

Also read Lesley's (of Lesley's Book Nook) review for Small Island here


nomadica said...

hi! thanks for the link to my blog :) i also felt like i learnt quite a bit from the novel and that bernard's character was definitely the weakest part of it.

hellomelissa said...

that's always a bummer when you are so loving a book and then a weird twist throws you completely off, leaving a bad taste in your mouth at the end. the same thing happens with movies sometimes.

Carl V. said...

Love the cover! Its fantastic.

Les said...

I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would when I first started reading it. I find it interesting that you were disappointed with the last quarter of the book. It took me over 200 pages to gain interest! I don't have my little cheat sheet here to show how to imbed a link in this comment, but if you go to my June 18th post, you can read my review. I need to remember to try more of this author's works!

Lotus Reads said...

nomadica: sometimes I wonder if Bernard was even necessary, ya know?

Melissa: True, but fortunately I got over that hump and ended up enjoying the book! :)

Carl: Yes, I'm a sucker for great-looking covers.

Les: So glad you've reviewed the book - I'd love to compare notes. I'll stop by tomorrow to hunt it (the review) down. Thanks for the headsup!

Les said...

Thanks for your comments on my review, Lotus (and for the link to it on your blog). Happy weekend!

Joy said...

Sounds intriguing. I will look into this one some more. :)

Bookfool said...

This one has been on my massive "wish list" since Les recommended it and now I'm even more eager to read it. I'm glad you enjoyed the book, apart from that last bit. I'm still willing to gamble on Small Island, if only because of the time period. Thanks for the review!