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Small Island: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 24, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 144 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --Meg Halverson

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. After winning the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, Levy's captivating fourth novel sweeps into a U.S. edition with much-deserved literary fanfare. Set mainly in the British Empire of 1948, this story of emigration, loss and love follows four characters—two Jamaicans and two Britons—as they struggle to find peace in postwar England. After serving in the RAF, Jamaican Gilbert Joseph finds life in his native country has become too small for him. But in order to return to England, he must marry Hortense Roberts—she's got enough money for his passage—and then set up house for them in London. The pair move in with Queenie Bligh, whose husband, Bernard, hasn't returned from his wartime post in India. But when does Bernard turn up, he is not pleased to find black immigrants living in his house. This deceptively simple plot poises the characters over a yawning abyss of colonialism, racism, war and the everyday pain that people inflict on one another. Levy allows readers to see events from each of the four character's' point of view, lightly demonstrating both the subjectivity of truth and the rationalizing lies that people tell themselves when they are doing wrong. None of the characters is perfectly sympathetic, but all are achingly human. When Gilbert realizes that his pride in the British Empire is not reciprocated, he wonders, "How come England did not know me?" His question haunts the story as it moves back and forth in time and space to show how the people of two small islands become inextricably bound together. Agent, David Grossman. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 441 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (April 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312424671
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312424671
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (144 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,406,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on April 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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!
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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!
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Format: Paperback
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.
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