Small Island by Andrea Levy is a book that took me by surprise. I recently saw a dramatized version of the book which inspired me to check the book out of my local library.
Then, I put it down again as one I didn’t particularly want to read. Something made me give this book another chance and I am so glad that I did. The story is basically one of love and ambition. It is also, however, a story of ambition, heart break, racial prejudices, and change: change that follows a war, rapid migration, and changing population demographic from a predominantly Caucasian one of multiculturalism.
It is 1948 in an England that is still shaken by war. At 21 Nevern Street, London, Queenie Bligh takes into her house lodgers who have recently arrived from Jamaica. She feels she had no choice. her husband, Bernard, whom she married to escape her dreary upbringing on a farm in the Midlands, was posted to India with the RAF during the war, but when the conflict was over he did not return. What could she do?
What Queenie did was upset the neighbours, go against the general racial attitude of the Englishman in the street, and provide shelter for people no one else wanted. For Queenie, that remarkable young lady, saw good and bad in people, but not the colour of their skin.
As for Bernard. Well no. Bernard did not die in the conflict. He just failed to return home to Nevern Street – for two years. When he did return it was to find things very much changed. Bernard could not cope with presence of “darkies” in the house. He couldn’t understand that one of them, Gilbert, had in fact, been helping Queenie and looking out for her. All Bernard saw was a black hand on his white wife, Queenie.
Hortense shared Gilbert’s dream of leaving Jamaica and coming to England to start a better life – that’s why she married him. But when she at last joins her husband, she is shocked by London’s shabbiness and horrified at the way the English live. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Poor, snobbish Hortense just could not see the reality of England in the aftermath of the war. She could not comprehend the scarcity of housing and the conditions people found themselves forced to live in. Hortense was a proud, unbending Jamaican lady firmly convinced of her own superiority. And, as the saying goes, pride has its fall and Hortense too had to fall.
Through the stories of these people, 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 theme of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a lightness of touch and a generosity of spirit that challenge and uplift the reader.
I have to agree with these word taken from the blurb on the back of the novel. In another writer’s hands the subject matter could have given us a very different book.
Small Island ought to, and should, make the reader think – even if only to say “were we really like that?”
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Headline Book Publishing, 2004