89 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Winner of the UK's Whitbread Prize for Best Novel, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Small Island may soon find deserved success in the US, too. Set in London in 1948, it focuses on the diaspora of Jamaicans, 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. Their reception is not the warm embrace they have hoped for, nor are the opportunities for success as plentiful as they have dreamed.
Four characters alternate points of view, telling their stories with an honesty and vibrancy that make the tragicomedy of their lives both realistic and emotionally involving. Queenie Bligh, a white woman with a mentally ill father-in-law, takes in boarders when her husband Bernard does not return from war in India. Most of her boarders are black immigrants from the Caribbean, desperate men and women willing to pay high prices for small rooms. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican who participated in the Battle of Britain, is one of Queenie's tenants, working as a truck driver, the only job available to him. Gilbert's bride Hortense arrives from Jamaica with her heavy trunk a few months later, ready to show London her superior "British" manners. When Queenie's husband Bernard unexpectedly returns shortly thereafter, life at Queenie's changes forever.
These four characters, through their often touching first-person narratives, convey their hopes and dreams for the future, revealing, as their stories intersect, their personalities, family backgrounds, experiences in love, commitments to the Mother Country, economic predicaments, and, not incidentally, their prejudices.
Levy imbues this novel with fine detail, both in her descriptions of the physical surroundings and in the emotional subtleties with which her characters react to their postwar lives. Her ear for dialogue is exquisite, both in the everyday speech of Londoners and in the dialect and sentence patterns of Jamaicans. Casual, conversational tones bring the characters to life, while Gilbert's recognition of "the way things are" keeps the novel from becoming polemical or strident, despite its thematic emphasis on prejudice and injustice. Levy's touch is light, often humorous, and her scenes of amusing irony are nicely balanced by scenes of high drama.
The author's tendency to tie her male characters to real, historical events--the Hindu/Muslim riots in Calcutta (experienced by Bernard) and a race-based riot at a London movie theater (experienced by Gilbert)--and her reliance on extreme coincidence to conclude the action, do occasionally feel intrusive and manipulative, but this is a minor quibble. This hugely conceived novel has everything going for it--well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions of an unusual time in postwar London, important themes which are not beaten to death, and lively action and interactions which keep the reader constantly involved. Mary Whipple
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2006
Although I read the reviews, this is the first time I have written one. I am an avid reader and went back to this site to see if there is a sequel to this book, I enjoyed it so much. When I read some of the negative reviews, I felt compelled to give my positive opinion. This book began slowly but quickly became engrossing. In retrospect the slow beginning added to the build up of the flavor of Jamaican life in contrast with that of life in 1948 England. Each of the characters was human to me. They each had unique perceptions (common in youth) that were shattered over the course of the book, each in different ways. I ended the book with a warm feeling for all of the characters and a strong sense of wondering what will happen next. It amazed me that someone could feel confident enough to write a review not even reading the entire book! I read it all and I'm looking for more of the same! Great job!
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
I loved this book! It is so dense and so unbelievably full of human folly that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Andrea Levy obviously did much historical research concerning the Jamaicans that came to England in the 40's to fight in the war. Not only are there prejudices and atrocities, but also sincere endearment concerning the flawed humanity of ALL of the characters.
Another thing that makes this book absolutely fantastic is that it is told by four different narrators, therefore, the perspectives are constantly changing and making the reader feel something new from chapter to chapter.
Levy's writing is realistic and vividly descriptive. Events within the novel are both wildly humorous and impossibly sad. In other words, I think she's done a phenomenal job of making sure her characters are not two dimensional. They are real, and because of that, one is able to deeply care for (and sometimes hate) them, which is what a true fictional experience is about. I believe Levy is a true master of her craft and I would read further works without reservation. This is a truly rich and rewarding read. Enjoy!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2005
Andrea Levy's Whitbread and Orange Prize-winning novel has emigrated from England to American shores with well-deserved ballyhoo. Levy has intricately woven the lives of four small islanders --- two from Jamaica, two from England --- into a tapestry of time and place so intimate and full of color that it lingers in the reader's memory long after closing the cover.
Gilbert Joseph, a patriotic, mixed race Jamaican subject of the British crown, enlists in the RAF during World War II. When he returns to Jamaica after serving in England, his small island seems hopelessly behind the times and beneath his acquired knowledge and skills.
Hortense Roberts, half white, half black, has received higher education in Kingston College and sees herself as more British than native, therefore deserving more of life than her small island can offer. Hortense and Gilbert are attracted to each other, not by lust but by desire of a better life, and forge their future in London through a financial arrangement.
On another small island, England, Queenie is the rural daughter of a butcher who flees to London to marry the bland but middle-class banker Bernard, who also feels called to duty and enlists. Queenie, now on her own, takes in bombed-out East End refugees, much to the dismay of the neighbors. When the war ends and Bernard fails to return, Queenie sublets their large home to immigrants, thus befriending Gilbert and Hortense and other coloreds. When Bernard finally does turn up, the cultural and racial clash, which has been simmering throughout the story, comes to a head.
Writing in the four voices of each main character, Levy humorously portrays each as they see themselves and one another, presenting their foibles as great attributes or horrendous faults, depending on who is speaking. Gilbert Joseph is a charming, funny and loving gentle man, or a bumbling idiot; a brilliant man with a future as a lawyer, or a black lackey truck driver. Hortense is a proper British woman with high language skills, or a gaudily dressed peasant barely capable of clear thought or speech. Bernard and Queenie are as colorfully drawn and endearing in their painfully human situations.
Levy fleshes out these four characters with such clarity and purpose as to bring them fully to life in a story that swings back and forth from wartime to postwar England and Jamaica. In less skillful hands, the plot would be a quagmire to navigate, but in SMALL ISLAND we are treated to a journey of discovery through the hopes and aspirations of immigrants and the movement that was the result of a changed world after World War II.
--- Reviewed by Roz Shea
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2005
Set mostly in 1948 England, with flashbacks taking place both there and in Jamaica, SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy is a complex story told through the voices of four main characters, two black and two white. Hortense is a young Jamaican girl, who has lived on the island rather comfortably because of her father's status. She is well-educated and aspires to be a teacher in one of the island's prominent schools. She dreams of the glitz and glamour of life in England, and when she meets Gilbert and he offers her a chance to move there along with his hand in marriage, she jumps at the chance. However, from the moment she steps off the ship she knows that life in England will be far different than she imagined. When Gilbert had the opportunity to join the Royal Air Force (RAF), he thought he finally had a chance to take the world (and all the women he could handle) by storm. But his encounters with racism both during and after his tenure with the RAF soon leave him disheartened. After sending for Hortense, he and his new wife set up house in a small room they rent and begin trying to build a life together.
Queenie, named after Queen Victoria herself, always dreamed of having a great life but her married life is not quite how she had anticipated. When her husband Bernard joins the RAF but doesn't return, she has to make it on her own and begins renting rooms in her home. She is socially ostracized when she decides to allow blacks to rent rooms in her home. Things seem to be going well for her, until her husband suddenly returns and shakes things up around the house. Finally, Bernard is a middle-aged banker with little meaning or purpose in his life. He decides to join the RAF in an effort to avoid being drafted into the infantry. Surprisingly, he finds that he enjoys being part of a team and he has even more pep in his step. When it is time to return home however, he decides to take a scenic route, and doesn't return to his wife until two years after he should have.
SMALL ISLAND has created a lot of buzz and captured a few awards. After reading the book, it is clear that it is Levy's writing which is literary, poetic, ironic, and lyrical, that is responsible for the positive response to the book. Her character development was superb, and as I read I felt as if I was having an intimate conversation with the characters. She fluidly transitions between past and present and between the voices of the various narrators, all the while, drawing you deeper into their respective stories and indeed, their lives. The plot addresses issues of poverty, racism, classism, and other social issues as well as more personal ones such as the search for true happiness in life and in a marriage. Although slow at moments and a little lengthy, SMALL ISLAND is a literary treat.
Reviewed by Stacey Seay
of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2005
Andrea Levy has exhibited refined novelistic skill in structuring Small Island to fall into the past of World War II and the future of 1948 as she unfolds the inner thinking, history, and emotions of her well-wrought primary characters, Gilbert and Hortense, who are Jamaican, and Queenie and Bernard, who are British. The couples are bound together in ways that aren't immediately apparent. They all originate from small islands, both economically limited. They are all subjects of the British empire. The blatant and harsh racism shown to Gilbert is echoed by Gilbert's naive perceptions of the English. The narrative is lively and interesting and kept sparking by Levy's fine poetic images, excellent ear for dialogue, and attention to keenly observed details. It's a quick and engaging read.
This is a well-written and original work that deserves many readers' attention. Its broad and important themes of racism, alienation, and cultural clashes are handled with a clear eye that leaves enough room for humor and irony. Well done.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Small Island is a fascinating collection of personalities trapped by their own assumptions, often clashing with the reality of the world they live in. Hortense Roberts, a Jamaican, marries Gilbert Joseph, also Jamaican, trained in America to fight in World War II for the British forces. Settled after the war in England, his bride yet to arrive from the island of their birth, Gilbert is by turns disappointed and enraged by the shameless prejudice that follows him through the streets of London, always watched, always judged.
Gilbert has taken rooms in Queenie Bligh's home, a woman forced to rent to boarders when her husband fails to return from service. Queenie has no idea if the dour and silent Bernard has perished in the war, but must survive. Enjoying a short dalliance with a Jamaican soldier who brings light into her otherwise dismal life, Queenie has no problem renting to the Jamaicans who cannot find housing in 1948 London. Then Hortense arrives, coming to Queenie's establishment when Gilbert fails to meet her boat. The women meet but are congenitally unable to communicate, Hortense insulted that her English can't be understood and Queenie speaking to Gilbert's wife as though she is learning-impaired. When Bernard finally returns, he is incensed at his wife's activities, demanding the boarders leave. But there are more serious complications to be resolved before Queenie relinquishes her authority to an absentee husband.
Here is human prejudice in all its ubiquitous subtlety: white against black, black distrusting white, Hitler decimating the Jewish population, India preparing for self rule but torn by civil conflict. Through all of this the four characters, Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard, speak to their own concerns, their particular needs colored by racial proclivities. Gilbert cannot fathom how Bernard considers himself superior, while Bernard is still ruminating on the brown faces he witnessed in Calcutta, where he was surrounded by otherness, protected from the chaos only by his nationality. The two women at odds from the first, Queenie patronizes Gilbert's wife, assuming that Hortense is incapable of navigating the streets of London without help (she's not). All these irritating conflicts initiate a strange tension defined by skin and class. Color creates a barrier, but more telling, the idiomatic Jamaican and English language hinders easy communication that may have resolved many of the issues at hand.
In alternating pre- and post-war chapters, these four characters expose their hopes and dashed expectations, finally face to face with their own prejudices in Queenie's boardinghouse. Each character is revealed, intimate thoughts exposed, all desperately clinging for purchase in a drastically changed world. The English, beaten down by incessant German bombings, are hard put to open their minds to racial equality, a condition further exacerbated by the natural British assumption of superiority. Proud by nature as well, the Jamaicans are not inclined to be subjected to the same insults heaped upon American blacks, where racial stereotyping is endemic. Out of this strange brew, the author brilliantly creates flawed protagonists who are defined by their experiences, but also unique, inhabitants of their small islands, forced to work out problems and make peace with their differences. Luan Gaines/2005.
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Small Island has won several major awards and had lots of praise heaped upon it, so this review clearly goes against the grain, but despite its several strong points, the neither the book's characters nor its plot ever came to life for me.
There were many things to like about the novel. Its structure--four narrative voices whose stories move backward and forward in time until meeting at the very end--works quite well and offers up a multitude of perspectives: cultural, geographical, sexual, etc. Another strength is the layered study of racism/colonialism that permeates nearly every page of the book--whether it be white/black, English/India, Dark-skinned/lighter-skinned. It's not a subtle portrayal, but racism is often far from subtly presented in reality, and the way the characters steep in its daily bath is depressing realistic.
Gilbert, the Jamaican RAF volunteer returned to an England that wants little to do with him now that his wartime service is over, is another high point. His question "how come England did not know me?" is sharply acrid in the reader's ears and the sting of it remains with the reader throughout the rest of the novel and afterward. His voice is the strongest and most steady of the four narrators, sometimes darkly comical, sometimes joyously so, sometimes wryly insightful, other times bitterly so. It is a tour de force voice and stands out so much that one wishes for more of it. In fact, it was a rude jolt when I left Gilbert early on in the book and there were many times I bemoaned his loss of voice. The other characters simply didn't match his tone, style, or interest. Bernard, the bigoted and dull bank clerk who goes to India with the RAF and takes the long way home, was described early on as "dull" and unfortunately this could as well describe his portions of the book. The two female characters--Queenie, Bernard's left-behind English wife and friend to "coloureds", and Hortense, Gilbert's just-come-from Jamaica wife--fall somewhere in the middle between Gilbert's wonderful voice and Bernard's dull one.
The characters themselves sometimes had an insubstantial feel to them, as if they were only half-devised for the book. At times one wished for a stronger sense of motivation for some of their actions or a more complete filling out of some of their statements/dreams. For instance, Gilbert talks of someday doing law, but outside of his statements to that effect one never sees a glimpse of this in his character--no watching of trials, no reading of books or newspapers, etc. The reader feels the character wants this so the author can make much of the obstacles put in his way due to his color. The same occasional lack of full definition affects each of the characters. Beside the four main characters, with the wonderful exception of Bernard's incapacitated father, the side characters are mostly mere shadows.
The book is more a study of character and society, so one doesn't expect a tightly woven or compelling plot; it's mostly an episodic movement through small scenes involving either the characters' early lives or their interactions in the present day, all culminating in their coming together toward the end. The end itself I thought the weakest part of the book, marred by coincidence, implausible character behavior, sentimentality, and a birthing scene that might as well have been a tea party for its sense of realism. The book's pace by then had lagged too many times and the major problems with the end only made me wish the author had ended it a good 150 pages sooner, preferably by removing nearly all traces of Bernard and focusing more on Gilbert and Hortense, whose slow coming together almost, but not quite, made the ending worth it.
In the end, Small Island was a book that I would rather have read than actually read. It started off strong, then lagged, picked up now and then mostly when Gilbert arrived, then went off the tracks at the end. It has its positives (structure, language, the voice of Gilbert) but they were outweighed, if only a little, by its negatives (pace, dull characters, contrived scenes). Not recommended, despite the many awards.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2006
I often wonder when I read other reviews of a book I either loved or hated if we read the same one. The book I read was anything but lifeless and mediocre. This book pulsed with life, with rage, with injustice, with destruction, and finally, with love. Levy's three main characters came to life for me on the page. What happened to them made me angry at the same time that they made me laugh or cry. While I could have done without Bernard's time in India, the thread of the story between two islands and two couples wove right up through the twist and the ending.
Not only was this a good read, it was a good lesson. I knew about the discrimination of Blacks by the US armed forces in WWII. I had no idea it was the same if not worse in the RAF. And while I knew about the Blitz, I didn't really know, until reading Levy's description of it.
Highly recommended. I'll definitely read her other books.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2006
I picked up this book out of a scholarly interest in Jamaican emigration to the U.K., not being familiar with the author. I was blown away by it. This is definitely one of the very best books I have ever read, and one that I will certainly read again.
Gilbert Joseph is a black Jamaican who volunteers for the RAF during the Second World War and is stationed in England, where he is befriended by a British woman named Queenie who runs a boarding house. The war brought "diversity" to England, and it has been struggling with it ever after. We learn a lot about race relations, racism and colonial mentality. Americans will be uncomfortable with the section on the bigotry of our troops, particularly as they have now been branded "the greatest generation." But it is not just about race. I found the depiction of living with German bombing raids to be particularly fascinating.
Gilbert returns to Jamaica after the war but it no longer works for him. He returns to England in 1948 - with Hortense, his bride, soon following. Hortense has been seduced by images of a mythical and perfect England produced by colonial education and culture. She has a very hard time accepting that the England she is experiencing is the England she learned about back home.
I don't think you have to be interested in England, Jamaica, colonialism or race to enjoy this extraordinary novel. Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie and her husband Bernard are fully formed and engrossing characters engaged in very believable relationships.
I am so happy to have come upon this book accidentally, and I am so pleased that there are more novels by Andrea Levy to read. Let's hope that she has a long life and writes many more beautiful books.