Small Island is a keenly examined story exploring the prejudices that existed, and still do, around racial inequality in post-WWII Britain. The novel flips back and forward from 1948 to a time before the war when two Jamaicans, Gilbert and Hortense dream of immigrating to Britain. Hortense has an image of Britons being the standard to which she aspires. In the war, Gilbert served in the RAF in service of his new home, his new identity, and a “Mother Country” worth risking his life for. Queenie and Bernard are two white Britons and offer the alternative couple for which many of the racial divides and commonalities are portrayed.
Queenie whose husband, Bernard, also fought in the war does not return when the war ends and she takes in tenants to help with income – most of them, Caribbean, including Gilbert. Each of the four main characters has a voice in the story and they are used with great aplomb in delivering the narrative and atmosphere of the novel. They are developed with so many intriguing personality traits and motivations that this is the aspect of the novel that deserves the greatest praise. In their relationships and their interaction with society at large, the horrible treatment of blacks builds an outrage as we see it for all its ugliness.
Andrea Levy crafts a wonderful book that tackles many of the acerbic realities that faced communities in England when more people immigrated to Britain following their participation in the War. A country they felt owed them. The storytelling is wonderfully created to illustrate how the lives of immigrants emerged rather than simply being reported. In addition to the blatant racial attacks, the subtleties of racism and intolerance are carefully drawn to provide a scope that is profoundly effective. Not to be lost in the characterisations, Andrea Levy brings to life the scenes of post-war London with richly detailed images that capture a country getting back on its feet after such a destructive war. The mix of emotions from devastation to hope, from loss to a new beginning and from opportunities to abuse are starkly given light, and often humour helps with a balance throughout the story. The ending didn’t connect as well with the rest of the book as I’d hoped.
Small Island has been dramatized for TV and is a book included for student literature courses, and deservedly so. I would recommend reading it as it is becoming one of the modern classics in British history.