Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year, ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy tells the story of Gilbert Joseph who emigrates to England in 1948 from Jamaica after fighting in the Second World War, shortly followed by his new wife, Hortense. Queenie Bligh has given up waiting for her husband, Bernard, to arrive home after fighting in the war, and takes in Gilbert and Hortense as lodgers to help make ends meet. However, when Bernard suddenly reappears, events become a lot more complicated.
The structure of the novel is very effective. The story begins in 1948 and then goes back and forth in time, exploring their individual wartime experiences and the connections between the characters. The narrative switches between all four main characters allowing the reader to develop sympathy and compassion towards all of them – even Bernard, who is the least likeable, is at least understandable. At the same time, Levy also avoids the trap of simplistically depicting the immigrant characters as being saintly, but still handles the issue of race relations sensitively. Levy’s main strength in her writing is the way she subtly adds layers to all of her characters and carefully balances them despite the regular time shifts in the story. She also has a great ear for dialogue and accents and successfully weaves in some more comic moments to what is overall a very moving story.
‘Small Island’ has been widely classified as ‘modern literary fiction’ but it is a refreshingly unpretentious book for that genre. The writing feels effortlessly authentic – it is historically accurate whilst also avoiding the traditional clichéd depictions of life in London in the 1940s by addressing a frequently overlooked but very important part of British history during that era. I highly recommend ‘Small Island’ for its originality and brilliant characters.