Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island was recently made into a television series. Like most book to TV/film adaptations, I haven’t seen it. I tend to reach for the book first, then look into seeing the show. Small Island is also a book that’s won a lot of prizes – the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It’s a good book, with an original idea.

I can’t say that I can recall reading other books about Jamaica, let alone Jamaicans in WWII England and beyond. Levy has taken her own history (her parents moved to England from Jamaica) and made it into an engaging story. The story focuses on two husband and wife pairs: Hortense and Gilbert, newly arrived from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard, an English couple who Hortense and Gilbert rent their room from. But all is not well – Bernard is absent and nobody knows why, Hortense and Gilbert don’t seem to get along and Queenie has her secrets. What are they?

Levy tells the story by moving back and forth between 1948 (when the story is set) and Before, giving us each character’s backstory and unravelling some of the mysteries occurring in 1948. The ‘Before’ sections deal primarily with World War II for Gilbert (he was in the RAF), Bernard (also in the RAF in India) and Queenie (who was dealing with the London bombings). They also delve back into childhood and early adult years, revealing how the two couples came to meet and why things are so awkward. In fact, the majority of the book takes place in the past – I’d be interested to see how the television series copes with this – moving forward and back like the novel or telling the story in a linear fashion. A lot of the suspense comes from not knowing a character’s past, but catching glimpses of problems in 1948. Back in 1948, there are a few bombshells where my mouth was hanging open in surprise – I didn’t see those twists and turns!

The characters in Small Island are flawed. Bernard is very racist by today’s standards, while Queenie is a lot more open-minded. Hortense is very particular with her visions of what England should be like, while Gilbert rolls with the majority of unfair things that happen to him. It was interesting to see the Jamaican couple’s perceptions of what they believed England to be like and the reality they were faced with, not to mention the racism from the English and Americans. The English are quite ignorant in their knowledge of Jamaica, to Hortense and Gilbert’s disgust (England is so important to them, why is Jamaica not so?); it made me think if other countries in the Commonwealth suffer from the same inflated image problem (can you tell me much about Australia?) Which country is the ‘small island’ with all its connotations?

This was thought provoking and original as well as an entertaining book – thoroughly worthy of the awards it won. Well done Andrea Levy.

Read this if: you’re interested in Jamaican history and its ties to England or just looking for a cracking read.

9 out of 10.

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