I have been looking for second hand copies of this book, because I’m creating a book stall at our village book exchange for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. My plan is to include books based in the Commonwealth countries or that represent a definitive moment in the Queen’s reign. This book sits a little early, starting in WW2, but sets a scene for those early years of her reign and shows how the people of the Commonwealth felt about their ‘mother country’. I first read Small Island after university, where I’d become the student obsessed with diversity, disability and all of those words that mark out difference. In my final year I looked closely at Caliban in The Tempest because my heart went out to him. I did a module in the Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous, and another in Post-Colonial literature. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was ploughing a very specific furrow and my dissertation in disability earned me a solid first. These studies really did hone my taste in reading and while I read across the breadth of fiction genres and subjects, the books that really get me in the heart have a thread of social justice and characters coping with prejudice. This book appealed to me because I hadn’t read much about the Windrush generation. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ as well as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Whitbread for this novel. It was also described as ‘possibly the definitive fictional account of the experiences of the Empire Windrush generation’, when it was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours don’t approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she has little choice in the matter. Gilbert Joseph was one of the many Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight Hitler. But when he returns to England as a civilian he doesn’t receive the welcome he was expecting, and it’s desperation that drives him to knock at Queenie’s door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, who for years has longer for a better life in England, soon joins him. But London is far from the golden city of her dreams, and even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.
I loved the slow pace of this novel, allowing each character’s story to unfold fully, and meander across each other. I felt deeply for Queenie, with a father-in-law shell-shocked from the First World War and her husband Bernard still away, even though WW2 has ended. I could understand how her friendship with lodger Michael started, she must have been so lonely. However the consequences of the relationship only serve to isolate her further. Gilbert follows friend Michael to the U.K. for active service, only to return in 1948 when the British Government put a call out to the colonies for workers. Many English men were lost during the war leaving a labour shortage and Gilbert knows he has the skills to help. Hortense has always had a dream of going to England, where she would want to be a teacher like she is in Jamaica. As married couples are more likely to be accepted, Gilbert and Hortense make a pact, to have a marriage that fools the authorities and forge futures for themselves in England. He knows exactly where they’re going to live, 21 Nevern Street, because Queenie’s were the only lodgings that didn’t have a card in the window saying ‘No Blacks.’
I fell in love with Gilbert, who proves himself to be a loyal and trustworthy friend to both Queenie and Hortense, although there are times when the latter would test the patience of a saint. Hortense is so haughty! She made me smile with her airs and graces. I love the way she dresses, with her gloves and handbags strangely reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s style. In her mind she has done everything her mother country asked of her. She’s been to a good school and become educated, she has her teaching certificate and is a dedicated Anglophile. When the call comes to the colonies, that England is in need of workers, she thinks she can be useful. Gilbert tries to explain to her that England won’t be what she is expecting, her education will be looked down upon and instead of welcoming, people may be hostile. She tells him he’s wrong. England is a massive shock to Hortense, not just the cold, but the shame of everything she’s worked for being worth nothing. She’s also misjudged their friend Michael, who had passed through during the war. Back in Jamaica, Michael is practically a saint and Hortense is taken in by his good looks and nice manners. Another hard lesson to learn. At least Gilbert is there, faithfully keeping her going, trying to soften the blows and always sleeping on the chair while she takes the bed. I had so much sympathy for Queenie, who is overwhelmed and exhausted. Her father-in-law can be hard work, he doesn’t speak and is prone to wandering. I can feel that she is very fond of him. Her pregnancy is conceived in the spirit of war; a mix of attraction, plus loneliness and a sense that death might not be so far away. Women who conceived while their husbands were away, often hid the pregnancy under the respectability of their marriages. If their husband returned on time they could announce a baby which was then born prematurely. If not, the woman was very reliant on her husband to accept and choose to bring up the child. Sadly for Queenie this choice isn’t open to her and we see what society’s reaction might be to a mixed race child. Would her father-in-law or her husband even accept her baby?
I thought the structure was brilliant, moving back and forth from before and during the war, to post war. It also moves geographically, from England to Jamaica. These changes in structure were helpful to the storyline, because of the perspective it gives us on events. Going to Jamaica shows us the attitude of our characters to England and how that changes once they’ve helped us through a war. Gilbert expected to be treated better. He answered the call to go to war and then goes to England’s aid a second time. It’s a shock to find there isn’t a welcome. In fact a lot of people are downright hostile and it feels so unfair. Hortense thinks her skills and presence will be welcomed too, but they’re not. Why ask them to come if they aren’t welcome? By visiting each character in turn we get to know them intimately, their whole inner world is open to us. We might see reasons for behaviour that had seemed strange before and we might change our mind about a character. The slow pace helps the reader really get to know them and how they change through their experiences. Through these people the author brings to life issues of identity and our cultural heritage, bringing to mind interesting contrasts with today’s attitudes, especially in light of the more recently discovered Windrush Scandal. Levy created characters that years later still feel as real to me as my friends and by the end I cared about them so much that there were tears. I’ve re-read this novel so many times and it’s power doesn’t fade, nor does the impact of the characters, and it’s this that makes Levy’s book a masterpiece.
Meet The Author
After she passed away on the 14th of February 2019, the Bookseller wrote: ‘Andrea Levy will be remembered as a novelist who broke out of the confines assigned to her by prejudice to become a both a forerunner of Black British excellence and a great novelist by any standards.’
Born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948, Andrea Levy wrote the novels that she had always wanted to read as a young woman, engaging books that reflect the experiences of black Britons and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. She was described by BBC News as ‘a writer who tackled important social issues . . . her writing . . . witty, humane and often moving, and full of richly drawn characters’.
She was the author of six books, including SMALL ISLAND, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Whitbread book of the Year, and was adapted for TV and for the stage, by the National Theatre. It was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’. Her most recent novel, THE LONG SONG, won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was adapted for TV by the BBC.