One of my book groups met in my sitting room last night. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but we all fitted in (just) to discuss Small Island by Andrea Levy.
I think it was generally agreed that we enjoyed this book, and found it a really worthwhile read. It deals with the fate of (mainly) four characters, two, Hortense and Gilbert, from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard, from Britain. Set during and just after World War Two, it deals with the prejudice shown to immigrants despite their engagement in the War and their work in the less glamorous jobs in London. There is also the snobbery of class and different views of race shown by Americans, other Jamaicans, and among the British. The plot suffers from one massive coincidence but apart from that develops between Jamaica and Britain through Blitz, neighbourhood tensions and finally a huge sacrifice.
The real strength of this book is its characters. Each chapter is narrated by one of the four characters in their own dialect or speech, and reveal the differences and attitudes as well as the varied experience of war, and to a certain extent, love. The missing character is Michael, whose influence is felt in both countries. Gilbert’s struggles and humour reveal his perception and nobility,Hortense shows her disappointments and misunderstandings, Bernard his shortcomings and fears. The most cleverly written is Queenie, kind and perceptive, accepting yet active to do good, willing to risk condemnation to help others. But she is no saint, not a perfect person, but a pragmatist who sees what must be done.
This is a realistic book which does not shy away from difficult or even shocking details. It obviously has certain autobiographical elements as far as Levy’s own family is concerned, and has the ring of truth . I think that thousands of free copies were given away a few years ago so it would not be hard to lay hands on a copy if you haven’t read it.
One thing I was surprised by was how few of us admitted to have seen the tv version. Am I really ( nearly ) the only person who watches tv dramatisations? Do I need to get out more? Well, here’s a picture of one of the stars… for Daughter if no one else…