three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
Andrea Levy
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-SmallIslandSmall Island, the 2005 Whitbread Book of the Year and winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction, chronicles the fate of two couples searching for mooring in postwar England. Jamaican Gilbert Joseph returns from the RAF thinking himself a first-class hero, but instead experiences a second-class life. Hortense, his wife, desperately wishes to become English, though she finds the country offensive. Queenie, Gilbert’s white landlady and a butcher’s daughter, befriends the couple until her husband, Bernard, arrives home from India and disapproves of black immigrants living in his house. Narrated from different perspectives, Small Island tells of colonialism and racism, war and compassion, and of people bound together by history, reparation, and love.
Picador. 448 pages. $14. ISBN: 0312424671

Age [Australia] 4 of 5 Stars
"The four [narrators] are rendered so deftly and with such pathos that each time the narrator changes, one feels a burst of sadness, reluctant to lose a voice that has become a friend. … Small Island is a triumph of poise, organisation and deep, deep character—the sort of work that can only be achieved by an experienced novelist, comfortable with her powers and confident in her technique." Dan Silkstone

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"… [a] quiet, often painful tale of immigration and discrimination …. Levy demarcates class lines effortlessly—sparing postwar England nothing of its racism—as she weaves a bristling, funny, angry tale of love and sacrifice." Tina Jordan

Guardian Unlimited [UK] 4 of 5 Stars
"The interaction between the couples is, to a certain extent, predictable, but a notable feature of the book is that the entire narrative and the stories within it clearly emerge from the memories of the period’s survivors. If ever there was a novel which offered a historically faithful account of how its characters thought and behaved, this is it." Mike Phillips

Telegraph [UK] 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a secret history of wartime Britain, one in which a number of women, stranded and lonely, found companionship with those black men whom they had been brought up to distrust. … Set in India, England, and Jamaica, it is as far-reaching a work as White Teeth." Sukhdev Sandhu

BBC News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The reader will most probably start preferring particular characters’ narratives, leading to disappointment when they are switched and needing to warm to someone else. … The characters’ relationships alone would make an interesting novel but set against a little-explored theme in Britain’s history, they become fascinating." Susannah Cullinane

Sunday Times [UK] 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If it weren’t for Levy’s light, mocking humour, mainly at the expense of Gilbert and Bernard, who are relentlessly upstaged by their wilful womenfolk, this novel would be almost unbearable to read: a tragic litany of prejudice and the ingrained stupidity that is its cause. Every scene is rich in implication, entrancing and disturbing at the same time; the literary equivalent of a switchback ride." Penny Perrick

Critical Summary

Levy, the child of parents who sailed from the Caribbean in the first wave of postwar immigration, fictionalizes the immigrant experience in her fourth novel. Relying on memoirs and oral histories, she describes in heartwrenching detail the lives of four individuals in 1948 England. Her plain, humorous style underscores the gravity and immediacy of her themes. She pens deep, convincing characters—Queenie speaks like a true Londoner; Bernard sounds like he served in India. The couples’ interactions are often predictable—Levy "manoeuvred her characters into the right place at the right time"—and the range of viewpoints sometimes disorients. Yet, these flaws barely diminish the power of this frank representation of the racism and disappointment of the era. "This is," The Guardian concludes, "Andrea Levy’s big book."