Small Island is a book about Jamaicans during World War II who dream of seeing the larger world and move to London. It’s also a book about black men and women were treated at this time, and about how racial prejudice in England, the U.S. and the Caribbean differed. And it’s also a book about how war changes everything.
That’s a lot to pack into a not-very-long novel. But then that’s why Small Island won both the Orange and the Whitbread prizes when it was published in 2010. Author Andrea Levy lives in England and is the daughter of Jamaican-born parents, so this may be her parents’ story. But it’s a much larger story than that.
This book appealed to me on many levels. Historical fiction, colonialism, racial issues, gender issues, to start with. I also love books written about England, and the 1940s (during and post WWII) are such a fascinating time in history. But one history we almost never read about is the history of the Caribbean. I’ve traveled to the Caribbean a few times on vacation, and I was interested to read more about its history and the lives of people who grow up there (which as a vacationer you never understand).
Small Island is told in the first person by four different narrators, which is the only thing that makes this book at times difficult to follow. Sometimes it jumps from character to character quickly, and sometimes Levy spends a long time with one of her narrators. But it’s worth the effort. Hortense and Queenie are young women in the 1940s. Queenie is white and lives in a nice house in London. She has to let out rooms during the war to keep the house while her husband Bernard is off fighting. This is how she meets Gilbert. Hortense is black and grows up in Jamaica. She trains in a school for teachers, where a friend of hers fantasizes about some day moving to London.
Gilbert fights as an airman for Britain in World War II (England is the “Mother Country”). He is initially thrilled to return to Jamaica after the War, but soon realizes how limited his opportunities are. And after seeing the world, he has big dreams.
Moving to London doesn’t turn out like Gilbert and Hortense expect, and that’s where I’ll stop with the summary.
The concept of a “small island” is an interesting one, especially as England itself is an island, despite its colonization of countries all over the world. Before the war, Jamaicans don’t see themselves as living on a Small Island, because Jamaica is large compared to the other islands. In fact they pity the “Small Islanders” around them. Then World War II opens up an entirely new perspective for Gilbert, and he realizes his world is a Small Island after all. At the same time, they will come to miss their home, which was a paradise in a lot of ways despite its very limited opportunities.
It was powerful to read, through Gilbert and Hortense’s eyes, their first understanding of what it means to be despised because of your race. They come to England innocent of such treatment. Even worse, they have to learn to behave as inferior, or the consequences will be violent and even deadly.
Levy makes her characters at times unlikeable, and it’s interesting to see how each of the four characters perceive each other. Queenie is viewed by Hortense as haughty and nosy, where in her mind she is simply lonely for companionship, and doesn’t see race as a barrier. Hortense views herself as smarter and more accomplished than the others around her, but to the others she’s standing on pride alone, as she has no money and no power as a black woman in a foreign land. Gilbert is just trying to make a life for himself and the people around him.
Bernard is absent most of the book and his story is told late in the book, but he’s integral to the story. He’s terribly unlikeable but sympathetic at the same time, which is just one of the things that makes this book so complex.
I can’t say this book is perfect — it drags at times and it’s hard to keep the characters straight for a little while. But I loved the development of each of these four characters, especially as you see them during different times in their lives and from different perspectives. I enjoy books that unfold out of sequence, so you learn critical things about the characters all throughout the book. I also enjoyed Levy’s use of dialect and the way all of these characters are speaking English to each other yet not understanding each other. Sometimes Levy’s ideas are hit-you-over-the-head obvious, yet at the same time there’s a lot of subtlety as she weaves the lives of these four characters together.
If the story sounds at all interesting to you, Small Island is definitely a book worth reading.