Small Island, by Andrea Levy
Small Island is the story of four people cohabiting in 1948, post-war London. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican, is proud to serve his Mother Country as a member of the RAF, but once the war is over he finds that Britain does not consider “coloured” people its children and he is not welcomed to stay. His new wife and aspiring teacher, Hortense, joins him in London only to suffer severe disappointment at the shabby living conditions she’s expected to endure and the rude treatment she receives. Their landlady, Queenie, is a rare sort of white woman who is not adverse to renting to them, but is not without her own kind of racism either. It is when her estranged husband, Bernard, who has been serving in India for years ex-communicado, returns to their household that the tension becomes unbearable and finally reaches a breaking point.
The story is told from each character’s perspective, and Andrea Levy successfully attributes a distinctive voice to each narrator. Though I didn’t particularly like Gilbert’s character (he’s a bit sexist), his story was the most interesting to me (and at least he’s not Bernard, who’s completely loathsome in almost every way and pretty much a child rapist). It’s mostly through Gilbert that we experience the racism within the armed forces; a slice of history I hadn’t much prior knowledge of and found fascinating. I found the character Queenie to be kind of brilliant, in the way that she’s mostly well meaning but still hopelessly misguided, a combination that is all too common in the real world. And poor, proud Hortense…was by far the character I most sympathized with.
I read a review of this book a few weeks ago on a different blog, but sadly, not predicting that I would read it so soon, I failed to bookmark it and do not remember which one it was. So, I apologize for not being able to link to whoever it is that wrote what I’m about to reference. Anyway, the review said that Bernard’s inclusion felt like an afterthought and I totally agree (not just because I hated his character, I swear!) The book is already two-thirds of the way done before his introduction, and by that time the narrative has already progressed too long for him to really feel integral to the story. In fact, he feels entirely disassociated from the rest of the text until the very end, and even then, he just didn’t feel very important. His sole purpose is to show why white soldiers were upset to find people of color had moved into their neighborhoods while they were away fighting for their homeland, which made them feel as if what they fought for is no longer theirs (i.e. racism). Which is already clear. If he had to be involved at all, I would at least have preferred less of him, and more time with Hortense. Or Gilbert, or even Queenie.
I also could have done without the constant reminder that this story takes place in 1948 (really, not even in the prose, but as if replacing chapter titles or something). I mean, I got it. Or the reminder that all this is “before.” By the time I learned by what we measure “after”, I’d stopped wondering. But these are small complaints.
I did not unabashedly love Small Island, but the subject matter was certainly intriguing and the writing was by no means bad, making it worth the read.