I was advised to read this book years ago for a university course about multiculturalism in Great Britain, and I have taken the chance now that I've found it on my host family's bookshelf. However, although the plot and the beginning were very promising the rest was not up to my expectations. Narration is fragmented among 4 characters and for each one of them two different times (the past and the present), and while the past of some of them is extremely interesting (Hortense above all) others' are really boring (see: Gilbert). What happens in the present time (1948) is quite interesting, on the other hand, and very well-written in my opinion. All in all, a bit of a disappointment, could have been much better as the ideas and the material were obviously really good!...Continua
The plot is interesting but the book didn't get me at all...
Last summer I read "Every Light in the House Burnin'", Levy’s first novel, but I was a bit disappointed. Despite the interesting setting, London in the 1960s from the point of view of a young girl of Jamaican origins, there was something missing. The remarks on the racial relations between the Jacobs and a predominantly white society were not explored enough and sometimes I found the story a bit dull. However, I decided to read Small Island, Levy’s most recent novel to date, because it is supposed to be her best (it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Prize and the Orange of Oranges) and I must say that this time I was not disappointed.
The novel is told in four voices: Gilbert’s and his wife Hortense’s, who travel from Jamaica to England just after the Second World War, and then from the point of view of an English couple, Queenie and Bernard. Andrea Levy said: "None of my books is just about race, they're about people and history". As a matter of fact, there is a lot of history in the book: for example the involvement of Jamaican people in the Second World War and in the Royal Air Force and their relations with American soldiers, their racism and their reactios to black British soldiers (America still had the so-called Jim Crow laws). There is also much about people in the novel: Levy writes about the displacement of English soldiers in remote areas of Asia and the experiences and impressions of the first Jamaican immigrants just after the war, together with the climate of austerity and poorness that England was experiencing at the time.
There is some irony and funny moments in Small Island, a thing that reminds me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), one of my favourite novels. There is a profile of Andrea Levy in the book section of The Guardian (here) and one of the questions that arises is why Andrea Levy didn’t have the same success as Zadie Smith with her novels about black people in London, at least until Small Island came. I think that the answer is the humour: Andrea Levy can use some humour (Hortense’s nickname, “Miss mucky foot”, or Gilbert’s failed “bee business” are some fine examples), a thing that is always appreciated.
One thing that shocked me in the novel are the differences between the Jamaican couple and the Londoners. There is no doubt that Jamaica was settled at the time: Hortense truly believes that she is British and wants to be considered as such. She is and educated young lady and her skin is light, something that she thought English people would immediately notice. She is shocked by the fact that English people can be poor, ugly and dark-skinned as well. She expected to live in a fine house with a back garden, instead she finds a city almost completely destroyed by bombs, a country impoverished by the war, where she must adapt to live in a cold, badly-furnished room with just a small sink and a toilet at the bottom of the stairs.
I've loved this book!
The characters are so polyedric and dynamic, the story is interesting and nice to follow, the writing is intriguing and clear.
Most of all I loved the fact that all my first impressions about the protagonists were wrong. Everyone is presented under a light that slowly shift and illuminate different part of the same person.
The story of two Jamaican immigrants in London and the woman who takes them in as lodgers. Told from the point of view of different characters, this is evocative, witty and moving.