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Small Island by Andrea Levy is essentially about the Windrush generation and how their lives were affected by their decision to make their home in Britain.

Centred around Jamaican, Gilbert Joseph, and his new wife, Hortense, who arrive on our shores with hearts full of hope and expectations straight from the fairy tale book of life, the harsh reality of living in post-war Britain shatters their dreams. Believing they were part of the British family, they risked and sacrificed their lives to fight alongside us only to find that family members in 1948 Britain do not have black skin.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Synopsis of Small Island by Andrea Levy

The novel begins with Hortense arriving on the ship from Jamaica, expecting her husband to meet her. Gilbert and Hortense had only known each other for three weeks before they married, and six months had passed since Gilbert set sail for Britain alone to find a home for himself and his new bride. When finding work and accommodation proved more difficult than he could have imagined, Gilbert takes up lodgings with Queenie, a woman he had met during the war, in a large house in London that has seen better days.

When Hortense arrives on the doorstep, having been stood up at the docks, she is less than impressed with Gilbert, or with the home he has found for them:

“Three steps would take me to one side of this room. Four steps would take me to another. There was a sink in the corner, a rusty tap stuck out from the wall above it. There was a table with two chairs – one with its back broken – pushed up against the bed. The armchair held a shopping bag, a pyjama top, and a teapot. In the fireplace, the gas hissed with a blue flame.

‘Just this?’ I had to sit on the bed. My legs gave way. There was no bounce underneath me as I fell. ‘Just this? This is where you are living? Just this?’

‘Yes, this is it’. He swung his arms around again, like it was a room in a palace.

‘Just this? Just this? You bring me all this way for just this?’

The man sucked his teeth and flashed angry eyes in my face.

‘What you expect, woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? You should stay with your mamma if you want it nice. There been a war here. Everyone live like this.’

He looked down at me, his badly buttoned chest heaving. The carpet was threadbare in a patch in the middle and there was a piece of bread lying on it. He sucked his teeth again and walked out the room. I heard him banging down the stairs. He left me alone.

He left me alone to stare on just this.”

From this inauspicious beginning, Levy takes us back to introduce us to each of her characters, the novel alternating between the lives of Jamaicans who grow up to believe that England is the motherland and a Utopia to which only the best may aspire, and to pre-war and war-torn London where Queenie and her mild-mannered husband, Bernard, are setting up home. Moving between past and present, we chart the progress of Queenie, Gilbert and Hortense as they encounter the endemic racism that permeates Britain’s society. Despite having fought in the RAF, Gilbert is treated with contempt and ridicule; Hortense struggles to find employment despite being a star pupil in her Jamaican college; and Queenie is frowned upon in the neighbourhood for allowing black people to lodge with her.

My review of Small Island by Andrea Levy

Levy’s ability to see both sides of the race equation and then translate that into engaging and insightful narrative is what makes this novel so compelling. From the beginning, we feel the profound sense of disappointment that both Gilbert and Hortense feel at discovering the real Britain, as opposed to the Britain they were led to believe would welcome them with open arms.

Through Gilbert, we learn that most Brits had barely even heard of Jamaica in 1948, let alone have any idea where it was:

‘And here is Lady Havealot, living in her big house with her ancestor’s pictures crowding the walls. See her having a coffee morning with her friends. Ask her to tell you about the people of Jamaica. Does she see that small boy standing tall in a classroom where sunlight draws lines across the room, speaking of England – of canals, of Parliament and the greatest laws ever passed? Or might she, with some authority, from a friend she knew or a book she’d read, tell you of savages, jungles and swinging through trees?

It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British Empire would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was threat. But, tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any sergeant who would have been able to find that dear island? Give me a map, let me see if Tommy Atkins or Lady Havealot can point to Jamaica. Let us watch them turning the page round, screwing up their eyes to look, turning it over to see if perhaps the region was lost on the back, before shrugging defeat. But give me that map, blindfold me, spin me round three times and I, dizzy and dazed, would still place my finger squarely on the Mother Country.’

The complete mismatch of expectation and reality is beautifully captured in the small details that enrich the narrative, like Hortense who dresses to go shopping in her white gloves, good coat and hat, only to encounter British housewives in their old coats and hair rollers. The fact that Hortense struggles to make herself understood, despite speaking English, illustrates the often-unintentional ignorance displayed by the local community.

The novel neither condones nor condemns the ignorance and discrimination that Gilbert and Hortense encounter, it merely presents it as fact. When discrimination is so entrenched throughout a society, it ceases to be visible to those who practice it, it’s simply the way it is. It isn’t until Queenie finds herself facing the same wall of ignorance that the true extent of society’s hostility and its effects are felt.

Despite the very serious issues that Small Island tackles, this is not a novel of doom and gloom. Quite the opposite. Levy’s narrative is rich in humour and has a lightness of touch that belies its impact. The dry, sharp humour of the Jamaicans is delivered in Gilbert’s observations:

‘This was war. There was hardship I was prepared for – bullet, bomb and casual death – but not for the torture of missing cow foot stew, not for the persecution of living without curried shrimp or pepper-pot soup. I was not ready. I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture. How the English built empires when their armies marched on nothing but mush should be one of the wonders of the world.’

Veering between laughter and anger, I simply couldn’t put the book down.


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