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I had been meaning to read Andrea Levy's award winning Small Island for years. It had won the Orange Prize for fiction and the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year award in 2004. Whilst I have often enjoyed past winners, sometimes I haven't, and this does give a weight of expectation to a book. Would Small Island be able to live up to it?
The book is set in London and Jamaica (the Small Island in question) before and after the Second World War. Our four protagonists are in London after the war. Queenie Bligh was in a loveless marriage, but she feels slighted when her husband did not return after de-mob and she is letting out rooms in the house. Gilbert, who served in the RAF for the British during the war, is from Jamaica and met Queenie when he was stationed nearby. After the war he returned to Jamaica, met and married Hortense and returned to Britain to find work in London where he has now sent for Hortense to join him. Hortense trained as a teacher in Jamaica and has high expectations of a good teaching position in Britain. Bernard, Queenie's husband, struggles with what he saw during the war and what he did. The book looks at their lives in London post war (1948), and looks back at their lives before and during the war that brought them to the point that they were all living in the same house.
Each character have their own chapters, which are written in the first person, and it chops and changes between the characters, but not so much that it is confusing. Each character chapter is a good length, so you get absorbed in that character, sometimes you don't want to leave them and read about the other person's story, but you are soon equally absorbed by the next story. It is a credit to Levy's writing style that she can give each character their own voice and utterly convince you of their story, from the subtle language difference between the white British and the Jamaicans, to the struggling relationships within the two couples, you are hooked from the very beginning.
Obviously the post war period is very different from now, and not one I experienced first hand, but I believe Levy has drawn an accurate picture within the pages of the book. This London is poor, run-down, cold and wet, and not the green and pleasant land that Hortense expected when she arrived. The Jamaicans experience racism, although often unintentional - most British were ignorant of where they were from, and reluctant to give them a job. Levy does not make a song and dance about it; it is dealt with very matter of factly, but you admire their perseverance in the face of adversity. There are various cultural differences and misunderstandings that need to be overcome and Levy approaches that pragmatically but with humour. As I have already mentioned, I enjoyed her characters and their stories, they are well-developed and relatable. Even though you may have very little in common with them on the surface, they are good people, likeable but flawed, far from perfect but each is trying to make the best of an opportunity for a fresh start after the war and you do find yourself wanting what is best for them. Overall, I enjoyed the female characters best, but I think that is more because I am female myself, rather than Levy having written them better.
This is the first book I have read by Andrea Levy and I would certainly be interested to read further work from her. I found the book easy to get into, her descriptions were clear, concise but sufficiently well composed that you felt that you could easily visualise the setting. The book also felt well-researched and seemed historically accurate, which contributed to my believability in the characters. When a book wins so many awards and accolades, it can often seem a bit of a worthy tome, a bit heavy-going. I did not feel that with this book, that is not to say that the book is not worthy, there are layers to it, it is not superficial but you can enjoy it on different levels if you so wish. Overall I believe Levy is saying that we are all the same underneath, which is not an original message but at the same time one that no one is going to quibble with. I think her style is subtle enough that you can just enjoy the story for what it is. Recommended for all fans of fiction.
This novel is perfect for anybody studying "The Struggle for Identity" course in AS level English Literature. The multi narrative structure of the novel as well as the jagged narrative time structure makes for a dynamic and interesting read. The story at the beginning is quite difficult to grasp, but fifty pages in I felt completely engrossed and wanted to read on. The novel is most commonly set in 1918 Britain, in the aftermath of World War I. The novel also makes references to "Before", allowing the reader to get each of the four narrator's back story. I would recommend "Small Island" to anybody who is interested in books containing the themes of war, racism, identity and the struggle to conform with society. A keen reader would probably finish the book in about a week, as it is over 500 pages in length. The book is definitely better than the television series!
Small Island is based in war-time England. It is a story where race, war, histories, and gender-roles collide. It is a gripping read, bouncing along with a variety of vibrant characters. The story is for the most part set in London, occasionally skipping to Jamaica, and India. We are journeyed through the beginnings of modern multi-cultural London; Levy shocks with her stark examples of racism and prejudice, and clearly portrays the classes and the pretence of appearances. Small Island explores 1940s gender roles and the sheer terror of war with a shifting mix of chapter-by-chapter alternating points of views from the four central characters, two white, two black, and follows their fortunes through the war. The greatest asset of the book is its description; clear precise images are threaded through immaculate dialogue and body language that paints faces and personalities among the crumbling environment almost instantly. With a perfect Jamaican humour streamlining through the plot, Small Island successfully grabs the reader, and, unsurprisingly grabbed the Orange Prize for Fiction Best of the Best 2005 and the Whitbread Novel Award.
Among one of my favourite novels I read last year! The narrative is compulsing, entertaining and informative and really allows the reader to get stuck into the era. The charaters all converge together at various parts during the novels, drawing parrells between them. This then allows for Levy to present the subliminal meaning of the book in a non intrusive way. My favourite charater is Hortense as you get to see her develop from a naive 'toff' when first arriving in the mother country to when you finialy accept things and learns to love Gilbert. Themes include, love, racisum, lack of communication. It is a great novel and one I challange any one not to enjoy. Levys prose style is truely addictive and will leave you both shock, laughing out loud, and questioning your own belives within its pages. Upon finishing the book I was left wanting more, as I came to love the complec charaters she created.
I was recently browsing through my local library and came across this book. From the cover of the book you can tell straight away what the plot is and the period in which it was written.
The plot is very predictable however it is mostly accurate according to those I've spoken to who came to England under the same circumstances in that period of time.
However, although I like the overall story; the way in which it was written was a bit confusing. This is because every chapter veers between characters and back and forth in time. I do enjoy seeing the story from each main character's perspective but I did find myself having to reread a few of the previous chapters to update myself on what happened before so that I could link this in with the current chapter I was reading.
All in all, I would recommend this book especially for its historical significance but I wouldn't recommend this if you are easily confused (like myself).
Andrea Levy's "Small Island" uses the recollections of four central characters against the background of the first wave of immigration from the Caribbean in the years after the Second World War to tell a story of racism, prejudice and, ultimately, hope for the future. The story weaves between the four characters with each one telling their part of the story in the first person; if that sounds like a lot of narrators, don't worry, the characters are sufficiently well developed and distinct from one another not to be easily confused and each adds a new dimension to our understanding of the story.
Thousands of men from the Caribbean - part of the British Commonwealth - volunteered for the British Armed Forces during the Second World War; most had never been to Britain and did not have any British blood but they referred to it as "the Motherland". Most did menial, but essential jobs in the British Isles, a few of the highly-educated men became pilots.
The volunteers from the Caribbean worked and lived alongside British men, both volunteers and regular soldiers. This was in stark contrast to the policy of the American forces where black soldiers were billetted separately and did not socialize with their white counterparts. In fact, a town would be out of bounds for black soldiers one week while white soldiers went there in their free time, and the following week it would be out of bounds to the white troops.
After the war, the men who had volunteered to help the British had the opportunity of returning to Britain - providing they could fund their own passage - to seek work. A great number took up the opportunity having been impressed by the welcome they had received from ordinary British people during the war and by the standard of living generally, in spite of the privations of the war
On return, though, they found Britain a different place; it was not so easy to find accommodation when so many people were already living in unsuitable accommodation (many had been bombed out during the war) and it proved difficult to get work either because of racist employers or simply because British men returning from the war were filling up all the vacant positions.
The central characters of "Small Island" are Queenie and Bernard who are separated when Bernard volunteers to join the forces and finds himself taking part in the campaign in the Far East, and Gilbert, just returned to Britain after deciding that Jamaica had no more to offer him, and his new bride Hortense who has high hopes for a new life in England but is disappointed by what she finds when she arrives.
On the surface "racism" stands out as a major theme but really Andrea Levy is more subtle than that; more generally there are threads pointing to prejudice and lack of understanding, whether that be related to race, to class or to gender but no single character can be seen as simply "good" or "bad"; when Hortense looks with disdain upon the dowdy women she sees on the streets of London she forgets that the women have just been through a war and are still not able to but new clothes or fabrics: likewise when Bernard sulks about Queenie taking a job, he demonstrates that he has no understanding of Queenie's disappointment at not having a child.
Disappointingly, Andrea Levy fails to develop the dramatic potential of the situation she has created by opting for a somewhat predictable plot. Furthermore, I felt personally slighted by the pervading idea that all white people are racist and felt that it was to easy to make the white people look ignorant and uncultured. I found it difficult to tell whether this was intentional or just more prejudice. Was demonstrating their ignorance a way of explaining their racist attitudes or a comment on the white working classes?
That said, I kept on reading and found the book compelling and eye-opening. Before reading the book I had no idea that black and white GIs were segregated even when serving in Britain; I also knew little about how exactly immigration from the Caribbean starrted. I felt that the historical details - about the first wave of immigration, about the war in the Far East, about Queenie's rural upbringing - were the main strength of "Small Island".
The other main strength I found was the style of narration; although this meant that some scenes were repeated as two or more characters recounted it, it gave the advantage of seeing the scene from the perspective of the other characters.
Much of the dialogue between the Jamaican characters is written in a simple version of Pidgin which is easy to follow. What didn't work so well were the scenes between Hortense and Queenie in which Queenie tries to explain some English colloquialisms to Hortense - I wanted the ground to open up and take me whole! "Cringeworthy" is perhaps another word Queenie should have explained!
In spite of my criticisms of the plot and the dialogue, I have to say "Yes". As an account of a particular period in British history I found this enjoyable and enlightening. The trick is not to look too deeply into the author's aims and to try just to focus on the surface instead; on that level this is a simple and satisfactory novel.
The book won the Orange Prize in 2004; I had expected, therefore, that this would be quite a heavy and serious book and, in that respect, I was happily proved mistaken. It's easy to read and entertaining yet still contains one or two shocking scenes which are memorable and which probably define the sentiments of the book as a whole. The theme is a super one, it's just a shame that the idea was not developed as acutely as it could have been.
Published by Headline, ISBN - 075530750X
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