Andrea Levy, Small Island (Review 2004)
This is a completely wonderful book. The main action takes place in London in 1948. The city is suffering the aftermath of war. Men are still returning from the conflict, and everyone is adjusting to new realities. In particular, men from the Caribbean who have volunteered to defend the ‘Mother Country’ now decide, some of them, to make new lives in England. The story centres on one of them, Gilbert, and his new wife, Hortense, as they come up against what in this book is clearly a shocking betrayal of the promises of the British Empire – white racism.
The other main characters are Queenie, a white woman who befriends Gilbert, and her husband Bernard, who is obnoxiously insular, pompous, racist and sexist. Each chapter is narrated by one of these characters, either in 1948 or ‘Before’: so we get childhood stories from Jamaica and rural England, and war experiences in many part of the globe, all told with a brilliant ear for different englishes. One of the many wonders of the book is that when, well past the half way point, Bernard finally has a series of chapters, we come to sympathise with him: not to like him, except possibly for one moment of unexpected generosity, but at least to feel for him.
Circumstances meant that I read most of Small Island in short bursts. This meant I could notice that while the story, or stories, did keep moving along, there was something to delight on every page. I was reminded of a piece of advice to young writers I read somewhere: Give the reader cool stuff now, and then more cool stuff later. That is to say, it’s no good having a fabulous surprise twist if everything leading up to it is dull. Well, nothing here is dull. Even dull Bernard’s story is gripping. A lot of it is very funny. The Jamaicans encounter racism but it does not define them. Brilliant humour made from the differences between US and British brands of racism, and in the climactic moments Gilbert delivers a brilliant speech naming the idiocy of white supremacist attitudes.
The final pages are guaranteed to wrench any heart.
About the title: one of the Jamaicans refers disparagingly at one point to the West Indians who come from small islands. Then he realises that Jamaica itself is a small island. And I don’t know if it’s ever made explicit, but there’s a strong implication that Britain is also one, its people as insular in their ways, as resistant to change and outside influence as anyone from St Kitts or Martinique.