Small Island
Andrea Levy
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Small Island

Andrea Levy
448 pages
April 2005
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Small Island.

Small Island is a moving, powerful novel that is about World War II, racism, prejudice, and struggle. Central to the story are four characters: Queenie, Bernard, Hortense and Gilbert. Queenie and Bernard are married, as are Hortense and Queenie – but most of the similarities between the two couples stop there.

Queenie and Bernard are white and they live in London where Queenie is a housewife and Bernard ekes out a quiet existence for them as a bank clerk. Queenie grew up as the daughter of a butcher and she longed to escape the grim, unpleasant work expected of her by her family. While she did not fall in love with Bernard during his courtship of her, she cuts her losses and marries Bernard knowing that it is the best option for her.

Hortense and Gilbert are both Jamaican. Hortense has recently finished her schooling and she is a teacher when she meets Gilbert. Gilbert is full of great ideas but does not seem to have many concrete plans. Gilbert and Hortense have a fleeting, rushed marriage that seems to defy Hortense’s serious and proud nature – but Hortense likes the idea of starting a new life in London where she expects that she will teach and lead the life that she deserves as a proud, intelligent black woman.

The two families converge due to World War II. While the two men do not meet until after the war, both Bernard and Gilbert are part of the Royal Air Force. While Gilbert’s homeland is Jamaica, England is Jamaica’s “mother country” and Gilbert felt it was his duty to assist in the war effort. Likewise, Bernard is a Londoner but does not wait around to be drafted and he enlists. Gilbert and eventually, Hortense, are boarders in Queenie’s home. Bernard did not return home after the war ended and he essentially appears to be missing. As such and due to the length of Bernard’s service, Queenie took in boarders to make ends meet during the war and continued to do so when Bernard did not return home – and her neighbors are deeply troubled by the prostitutes and “coloured people” that she has living in her home. Queenie is not prejudiced and she sincerely cares for Gilbert, with whom she has struck up a friendship over the years, as has Queenie’s father-in-law, Arthur (who lives with Queenie) who has a cautious sort of “kinship” with Gilbert.

When Hortense moves to London and into Gilbert’s room at Queenie’s house, she is astonished by the scurrilous living conditions and is even more shocked when she realizes that England wants nothing to do with a black woman. As Gilbert scrambles to please her with his meager resources and Queenie continues to feel the pressure from the locals about boarding “people of ill repute,” the other shoe drops when Bernard finally returns home. Having suffered his own share of abuses from people of color during the war, Bernard has developed a deep hatred for “coolies” and he insists that Queenie immediately evict her tenants because they are not “their people.” Queenie refuses and a turn of events ensues.

Small Island unfolds with each chapter being devoted to the perspective of one of the four characters and the story is essentially told in reverse chronological order. Therefore, we get to hear the “voice” of Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert and Hortense as well as learning about how their younger years and experiences shaped them into who they are present-day in the late 1940’s. The author does a good job of crisply portraying each character and the reader can understand each character’s desires, motivations, and struggles. The novel is largely set in the British Empire in 1948 but the story spans back in time as well as in other countries, mainly, Jamaica. As each couple struggles with one another – and couple against couple as well, all four characters gradually begin to relate to each other. While the book is long and takes awhile to get into, the author does a wonderful job creating authentic characters and she uses some humor to offset the grimness of the war. Small Island is highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and literary fiction and it is no surprise that this book is an award winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Shannon Bigham, 2005

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