Small Island by Andrea Levy
Genre: Historical-fiction, Adult
Published: September 17th 2009 by Headline Review
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.
This book is one of those rare cases where I watched the TV drama and that prompted me to go out and buy this book. Buying this book in my view was a good decision because despite my dislike for war-time historical novels because they usually make me weep, this novel takes on a very different tone and I think the TV series really reflected it well. Splitting the narration into four perspectives and then switching from present to past slowly unravels the history and life of the characters whilst building up their characters and really develop the story and the morals of racism and change at the heart of this novel. It actually really touched me and I found myself wanting to rattle some of the characters who reflect the citizens of 1948 and their behaviour towards black people. Levy really creates a wonderful, heartfelt tale of the troubles the black men faced in England and during the war with white Americans!
First we gain a little background on Queenie as a young girl before being thrown into the present of 1948. During the year 1948 the four characters share narration, although Bernard doesn’t really come into the book until later. They couldn’t be more different in how everything is narrated and I literally loved seeing everything from their different perspectives. They all saw the world through different eyes and they were all treated differently. The split narration in Small Island undoubtedly gives the racial and sexual segregation and stigma a real platform to jump out at you. Not only do we have the present of 1948, but we jump back to ‘Before’ where each time the narration for one of the four characters reveals the background to how they got to where they are. It really adds to the mystery and serves to build up a complex plot with lots of interweaving narrations.
I have to say Hortense was by far my favourite character, purely for the way she spoke. She was incredibly popular and her “Just this” expression managed to crack numerous laughs from me. This book might cover a really controversial topic, but it manages to come across in a light-heartened, entertaining fashion with the innocence and naivety of Hortense who doesn’t understand 1948 Britain and her exasperated husband Gilbert.
‘Me caan believe what me ear is hearing. You a man. She just come off the boat – you mus’ show who boss. And straight way so no bad habit start. A wife must do as her husband say. You ask a judge. You ask a policeman. They will tell you. Everyt’ing in that trunk belong to you. What is hers is yours and if she no like it a little licking will make her obey.’
By far the dynamic between Hortense and Gilbert developed across the whole novel and really served as a base for the novel to return to. For me, they were the main focus of the novel with Queenie and Bernard’s character and background building all to add into their plots and deepen the twists and complexity. Not only that, but the progression between Hortense and Gilbert was really clear to see and the changing dynamic of their relationship really made me smile.
I may have said, Queenie and Bernard take a back seat, but they really have a history, a story and a lot of intricate twists and turns and a beautiful surprise that draws and connects them to Hortense and Gilbert. With that Levy really manages to show that the immigrating Jamaicans really weren’t that far away from the British. I found Queenie and Bernard’s tale to be much more heavy and saddening, it wasn’t that they had worse problems that those challenging Hortense and Gilbert, I just thought they both had a more sombre tone to their characters and this really brought the severity of their situation. However, Hortense and Gilbert balanced this by bringing a more light-heartened, optimistic view to things and this managed to lighten the problems of the story and brought a balance to a tale that could have been a overly woeful war tale, to a beautifully crafted novel!
“And the funny thing was I felt so peaceful being embraced by him and gently whispering, ‘There there, Bernard, there there.’”
Another integral part of this novel is the Jamaican feel and the style of speak. Levy really manages to bring the tone of voice and the style into everything she writes because you can really hear the voice in your head and the Jamaican accent. Even Hortense who has such ‘proper’ English manages to stand out for the way she speaks and it really serves to add to the enjoyment. Although, I think it takes a while to get used to, but moving with the flow of the story really makes it easier to accept. Don’t discard the novel because of it because it adds to the reality of the novel and immerses you in the tale.
‘I have not seen Gilbert,’ I told her, then went on to ask, ‘but this is perchance where he is aboding?’
Something to be warned of when reading is the racial slurs and if they are something you aren’t comfortable with, then I’d probably avoid this novel or at least try it and place the slurs in context to the time where people were slowing coming around from the idea of black people as second class citizens from their slave heritage particularly to the Americans or invaders for the British who felt them to be alien.
Despite these points, the characterisation is absolutely flawless and I don’t think Levy could have done a better job. She should be applauded for taking on four perspectives and really carrying them off. To add to this, the background details and descriptions were equally brilliant and it all brought the novel together as a really fantastic piece of literature that should definitely be remembered as literature!
“Then he ran through the door, saying, ‘Hortense, what you have in that trunk – your mother?’
As the Englishwoman was still looking at us I smiled instead of cussing and said, ‘I have everything I will need in that trunk, thank you Gilbert.’
‘So you bring your mother, then,’ Gilbert said.
This novel is called a “courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit” and I can safely say, for me it really did achieve that. War novels might not always be my favourites since they are so saddening, but I think this really served to bring a different perspective and open my eyes to all sides of a tale that you really might not see!
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