Small Island

“But for me I had just one question – let me ask the Mother Country just one simple question: how come England did not know me?”

This is the question asked by the baffled Gilbert, one of the protagonists of Small Island, Andrea Levy’s award winning tale of the first wave of Jamaicans to come to England after World War II. Gilbert is confused, because while any young student in Jamaica can recite the canals of England, the roadways, the ports, the railways, the docks, while they memorize the Parliaments and the laws that were debated there, while they take great pride in their mother country, the English that they meet have no idea of where Jamaica is. Most people guess Africa, probably because Gilbert is black. Gilbert is shocked, because Jamaica is part of the mighty British Empire, and so he imagines that all of the countries in that Empire would be part of a large family.

Small Island is told in four alternating first-person narratives that switch between a “present-day” story set in 1948, and flashbacks that establish the narrators’ backgrounds. Gilbert and Hortense have come from Jamaica to London with high hopes of making it big in their fine and welcoming Mother Country. Queenie and Bernard are their English landlords.

Gilbert served in the Royal Air Force, with dreams of fighting for his country, dreams which are squelched by the brutal reality of racism in England. Nevertheless, he is frustrated by the slow life in Jamaica, and hopes to go to law school in England, and make his fortune there. Unfortunately, he does not have the money for passage over to England. Enter Hortence, a school teacher with dreams of her own. She wants to leave Jamaica as well, wants to experience the high style and sophistication of life in England. So, even though they don’t know each other very well, they marry. She gives him the money he needs to go to England, he goes, finds a job and rents a room, and then sends for her to join him. Her disappointment at the shabbiness of post-war London is quickly eclipsed by her disappointment at the racism she experiences.

Queenie grew up on a dairy farm, and marries Bernard in order to escape that life, even though she finds him extremely dull. When he goes off to war, she begins to take in boarders to their oversized house. She doesn’t see herself as being racist at all, though she does make comments like, “Don’t worry, I don’t mind being seen with you” when on a shopping expedition with Hortense. When Bernard returns from the war, he is horrified to find ‘Coloreds’ living in his house, and immediately begins plans to get them out.

Author Andrea Levy’s father was among this first wave of immigrants from Jamaica to England, and Gilbert and Hortense’s stories ring the most true. Their relationship is the most interesting, the most moving. Bernard seems more of a caricature, and a plot twist near the end of the book strains credibility. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful read, and I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who have come from the Caribbean, as Gilbert’s voice is so true to the region.

Small Island is being made into a mini-series for the BBC. It has won the Orange Prize, was the Whitbread Book of the Year, and also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

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