‘There is opportunity here (Jamaica) if you look right.’ Elmwood
‘So why so many young men and women queuing up for passport? Why so many striking for job and busting up the place? Elmwood, I have seen it with my own eyes. The world out there is bigger than any dream you can conjure. This is a small island. Man, we just clinging so we don’t fall off.’ Gilbert (page 207)
It’s amazing when you read a book that seems to appear in every charity book shelf and one that sat too long on my shelf. Small Island is one such book.
Post war restructuring and conflict…
The year is 1948 and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, SW London, the conflict has only just begun.
Queenie (Victoria) Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she resort to help out people in need and took them in.
Gilbert Joseph was one of them. He was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as civilian he finds himself treated very differently. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London great, decrepit and shabby, far from the city of her dreams. Everything seems coarse and uncouth to her, even the man she had agreed to marry.
Didn’t quite grip me at the beginning….
The book moved back and forth from “before” to “1948” which is the current year. Each chapter is narrated by different narrators, with Hortense taken a small part, Gilbert and Queenie taking the major chunk of it and I didn’t quite expect the missing husband, Bernard to show up and occupied a main section at the latter part of the book. I started the book slow and couldn’t quite get into it, perhaps due to the colloquial Jamaican English I was finding hard to grasp, but when it finally gripped me I didn’t let it go until I finished the 530-page book in 2 days.
I’m not sure when the book caught me but I think it caught my attention when Gilbert narrates his own experience. Levy is a master of heightened drama and emotional scenes and there were many memorable scenes that I remember it vividly in my mind. Scenes where Gilbert was refused a seat in front in the cinema; when he was made fun at the American camp when they couldn’t understand why a black man like him could be a British subject; the scene when he was given a cough sweet by a lady who dish out random kindness in the moment of needs. The idea that Gilbert was ostracised because of his skin colour was a theme that prevails throughout the novel but Levy has given it that much of humour and heart, that I find myself laughing one minute and heartbroken the next.
Heart breaking and angry male voices….
I find myself reading passages and stop short to digest the implication and the hurt it induced…
But the ground was now parched and dry – too hard for me to push my fingers down into the earth. And it was there that I wept. I am not too proud to tell you I sobbed like a boy lost. I was beaten. There was no choice before me except one. If Hortense had money to buy me then, come, let us face it, my price was not too dear. – Gilbert page 211
How long did I stare at that sweet in my hand? Fool that I am, I took a handkerchief from my pocket to wrap it. I had no intention of eating that precious candy. For it was a salvation to me – not for the sugar but for the act of kindness. The human tenderness with which it was given to me. I had become hungry for the good in people. Beholden to any tender heart. All we boys were in this thankless place. When we find it, we keep it. A simple gesture, a friendly word, a touch, a sticky sweet rescued me as sure as if that Englishwoman had pulled me from the drowning in the sea.” – Gilbert page 328
And finally, two-thirds of the way through this long novel, Bernard, a sour, angry presence until this moment, gets his back story too. This comes as a shock, for we have not heard his voice before at all. The “1948” sections are shared between Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie. Bernard has no claim upon the narrative’s present – and, at its climax, he finds he has no part to play in the decisions that have to be made by the other three. But he does have a past: the traumatic story of his wartime service on the India-Burma border. It does something to explain the twisted person whom Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie see.
The most important effect of the use of back stories is the shifting of a reader’s sympathies. I didn’t like Hortense or Queenie much but like Gilbert a little better but the background stories of how they grew up and what motivates them makes them look human and vulnerable in the eyes of the readers. It is inevitably that when I got to the end of the book I feel sorry and also hopeful for what is in store for these 4 people.
Audacious and bold
It is an audacious, bold and heartbreaking book with many surprising twist. A part of me thinks that this could be published and won so many awards because of its racial theme but let me assure you that Levy is one great writer and she writes with such fluidity and grace that I was caught in her tightly spin emotional rollercoaster ride. The part of Bernard narration disappoints me and although the birth of a baby was endearing, I didn’t appreciate the coincidence that Levy was trying to set Hortense up with. The ending is just too convenient for me. Therefore I gave it a 4.5-star. However if you are happy to ignore what I have just said, I think this is a 5-star read. A deserving Orange Prize 2004 winner and I think her backlists deserve a wider audience.
Jackie @farmlane books.co.uk: I also found the book lacked vivid descriptions – I couldn’t picture the Jamaican scenes and I’d have had no idea where in the world they were if I hadn’t been told. These are minor quibbles really – a 560 page book has to be very good to provide an interesting plot throughout.
Kim@Reading Matters: Levy is, of course, a master storyteller but she never preaches or comes across as if she is pushing a message; there’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content.
Paperback. Publisher: Headline Books 2004; Length: 530 pages; Setting: Kingston, Jamaica and London. Source: Own copy. Finished reading at: 25th December 2012 (Christmas day).
I’m reading this for TBR and immigration challenge.
About the writer:
Andrea Levy (born 1956) is a British author, born in London to Jamaican parents who sailed to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948.
Andrea Levy is of primarily Afro-Jamaican descent. She has a Jewish paternal grandfather and a Scots maternal great-grandfather.
In her mid-twenties she did work for a social institution that included dealing with racist attacks. She also worked part-time in the BBC costume department, while starting a graphic design company with her husband Bill Mayblin. During this time she experienced a form of awakening to her identity concerning both her gender and her race. She also became aware of the power of books and began to read “excessively”: it was easy enough to find literature by black writers from the United States, but she could find very little literature from black writers in the United Kingdom.
Levy began writing only in her mid-thirties, having enrolled in Alison Fell’s Creative Writing class at the City Lit in 1989, continuing on the course for seven years.
Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a two-part television drama which was screened on BBC1.
Jo, this is another great review – and another book that, if it had not already been on my wishlist, I would have added due to your recommendation.
I thought it was exceptionally honest and bold. I hope you like it as much as I did. It still play on my mind after reading it.
I enjoyed the tv version of this so much I brought the book but not read it yet ,seems like the book has a bit more than the tv show did ,all the best stu
I’m curious about the TV version. Hope I could watch it one day. I thought the book was really good.