Newest Review: ... of a good teaching position in Britain. Bernard, Queenie's husband, struggles with what he saw during the war and what he did. Th... more
A Small World
Small Island - Andrea Levy
Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Small Island - Andrea Levy
Advantages: Great characters, well-written and engaging
Disadvantages: None for me
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.
Summary: An enjoyable work of fiction