Small Island by Andrea Levy

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.


Filed under Books

12 responses to “Small Island by Andrea Levy

  1. I read it with my readers’ group of mainly ladies of a certain age. Everyone enjoyed it, including the 90 year old.


  2. It was amazed and greatly disappointed that “Small Island” was not shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004. Ms. Levy’s novel was worthy of winning the top prize. It’s a shame that a Black woman still has not won a Man Booker Prize.


  3. I read it three years ago and loved it. I think the way it describes and criticizes the times is amazing but also very humane. There is no better way to connect with a character than through feelings and despite the generational gap between us and these women, it was so easy!


  4. I loved this book too and could not understand why the author is not enormously famous. I agree that she should have won the Man Booker, and frankly, every other prize there is! It’s brilliant. Great review!


  5. I didn’t realize that the BBC series was based on a book.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the series so I hope it was true to the book.
    i particularly remember the ending.


  6. I really enjoyed this book, and appreciated how subtle the story was, and how the characters were really multi-dimensional. Nice review.


  7. I tried the book some years ago, but didn’t finish it. I do remember being shocked at how racist the Brits were in the 1940s.


  8. Oh, I see that someone pointed out to you that there was a miniseries based on this novel. Here in the US they had it on Masterpiece.


  9. I remember not being too impressed. You’ve made me want to give it another try.


  10. I’ve read this twice – loved my first attempt, but then absolutely hated it when I came to study it for a-level. Perhaps I’ll read it again and see how I feel about it now…


  11. I bought this book with the best intentions almost a year ago, but it has been collecting dust on my shelf. I read another one by Levy called Fruit of the Lemon which I enjoyed, but someone told me that Small Island had little more depth.


  12. prisailurophileblog

    I just finished reading it. Brutally honest. Andrea Levy is now one of my favourite author.


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