An entrancing broad sweep of a novel as Andrea Levy explores life in London immediately following the end of World War II and the arrival of the first Caribbean migrants. Queenie Bligh is anything but popular in a run down Earls Court neighbourhood as she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers.
Focussing on four key characters, Small Island is set at the significant point of historical change as Levy explores the concepts of empire, nationalism, prejudice, family, war and love. Honest and, at times profoundly moving, at times extremely funny, Levy handles her material with a non-judgemental passion that results in a wholly engaging and thoughtful narrative.
Gilbert Joseph first arrived in England from Jamaica as an RAF volunteer. But any expectations of flying were soon squashed and he found himself as a driver delivering coal, picking up spare parts from other bases. But having being demobbed and sent back home, Gilbert yearns for a return to the ‘mother country’ and study. Meeting Hortense offers him that opportunity.
Whilst Gilbert was experiencing a rude awakening to life in the mother country during the war, a somewhat privileged Hortense had gone through teacher training in Kingston. As the child of a national hero, Hortense was well endowed with the airs and graces of her father’s position. That she was an illegitimate child did not deter her determination and expectations. And a successful position in England was at the top of her list. Offering to lend Gilbert the money to pay for his passage back to England on the HMT Empire Windrush in return for marriage was, for Hortense, the perfect first step on the ladder of her ambition.
Never was a couple more ill-matched!
But fractured chronology and chapters broken into ‘Hortense’ and ‘Gilbert’ ensure that Small Island is no simple straightforward narrative. Interspersed with their stories is that of Queenie Bligh herself. Daughter of Yorkshire pig farmers, Queenie is no shrinking violet. But she was saved from a life of drudgery by a lonely, London-based widowed aunt who taught her manners and a touch of deference. Marriage to bank clerk (but desperately boring) Bernard Bligh ensured a comfortable if tatty-round-the edges London life, although air raids and a missing husband 3 years after war end meant Queenie was forced to take in lodgers in her large London home. And Gilbert, having met with Queenie during the war near to his Yorkshire base, is one of them.
A whole litany of colourful characters inhabit Small Island, from Jamaica based cousin, Elwood, through to members of Bernard’s regiment in India, from Hortense’s friend Celia through to Bernard’s father, Arthur, and Queenie’s parents. All contribute to the storyline. Life on the small sun-drenched but impoverished island of Jamaica is juxtaposed with the small, grey, post-war impoverished island of the mother country. Confronting racism and segregation, shocking prejudice and distrust is intermingled with genuine moments of warmth and humanity.
As a narrative, it is loosely based on Andrea Levy’s parents – her father travelled from Jamaica on the HMT Empire Windrush and the terrible prejudices and racism, overt and covert, he and generations of new migrants faced.
Occasionally, the book slips into a repetition of commentary or, to lighten the mood, slapstick humour (the mule and the bees way outstayed its welcome). But then shocking home truths (1948 was only a few years before signs reading NO BLACKS, NO IRISH, NO DOGS appeared in windows of boarding houses) ensure that Small Island is not always an easy read – and nor should it be.
Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and Orange Prize for Fiction – Best of the Best. both in 2004 and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Small Island was inexplicably overlooked for even the 2004 Booker Prize longlist in the year won by Alan Hollinghurst and The Line of Beauty.