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.
The novel is based on four main characters: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard and the story is told from each of their points of view. Its main plot is set in 1948 and focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants, who, escaping economic hardship on their own “small island,” move to England, the Mother Country, for which the men have fought during World War II. While the novel focuses on the narratives of Gilbert and Hortense as they adjust to life in England, after a reception that is not quite the warm embrace that they have hoped for, the interracial relationship between Queenie and Michael is central to the plot and the connections that are established between all of the characters. As the story is narrated from various view points, it is achronological, skipping around to discuss each character’s life before the outbreak of WWII.
Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, Small Island, deftly brings two bleak families into crisp focus. First a Jamaican family, including the well-intentioned Gilbert, who can never manage to say or do exactly the right thing; Romeo Michael, who leaves a wake of women in his path; and finally, Hortense, whose primness belies her huge ambition to become English in every way possible. The other unhappy family is English, starting with Queenie, who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher’s daughter only to marry a dull banker. As the chapters reverse chronology and the two groups collide and finally mesh, the book unfolds through time like a photo album, and Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with a humor and tenderness that is both authentic and bracing. The book is cinematic in the best way–lighting up London’s bombed-out houses and wartime existence with clarity and verve while never losing her character’s voice or story.
This book covers social issues during and after WW 11 but from a very different perspective. I loved the insight into the characters and their different ways of seeing the same scene. Set in Jamaica and England, primarily London, it offers a view into racial discrimination in England from the viewpoint of several unique characters. Some are WW 11 RAF airmen, some are civilians and all are very well connected into a story that made me feel much more attached to that time period.
I enjoy books that broaden my understanding of historical incidents that have shaped our current world and found this book provided so many unexpected viewpoints. It was funny in parts, tragic in others and overall it weaves the story beautifully between Jamaica and England.