Thursday, July 9, 2009

18. "Small Island" by Andrea Levy

Year of first publication: 2004
Genre: novel
Country: United Kingdom / Jamaica

About the author: Andrea Levy was born in London to Jamaican parents. Her novels explore the problems faced by black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), is the story of a Jamaican family living in London in the 1960s. The book opens, not with the expected transatlantic journey from the West Indies, but with a family trip from London to Pontin's Holiday Camp. Her second work, Never Far from Nowhere (1996), is set during the 1970s and tells the story of two very different sisters, Olive and Vivien, living on a London council estate. In this novel she elaborates on the estate-based Black English culture. These issues of local identity and ethnicity emerge as a tension when Olive identifies herself as authentically 'black' and longs to 'return' to Jamaica, while Vivien, who has a lighter complexion than Olive, 'passes' as white. In Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Faith Jackson, a young black Londoner, visits Jamaica after suffering a nervous breakdown and discovers a previously unknown personal history. Levy's most recent novel is Small Island (2004), which won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange of Oranges, that is to say the best novel among those awarded the Orange Prize in the preceding decade.

Plot: Set in 1948, the novel explores the interaction between a black couple, Gilbert, a former RAF recruit, who has returned to Britain on the SS Windrush, and his Jamaican wife Hortense, and a white couple: Queenie, their landlady, and her recently demobbed husband, Bernard.

Some thoughts: Last summer I read Every Light in the House Burnin', Levy’s first novel, but I was a bit disappointed. Despite the interesting setting, London in the 1960s from the point of view of a young girl of Jamaican origins, there was something missing. The remarks on the racial relations between the Jacobs and a predominantly white society were not explored enough and sometimes I found the story a bit dull. However, I decided to read Small Island, Levy’s most recent novel to date, because it is supposed to be her best (it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Prize and the Orange of Oranges) and I must say that this time I was not disappointed.
The novel is told in four voices: Gilbert’s and his wife Hortense’s, who travel from Jamaica to England just after the Second World War, and then from the point of view of an English couple, Queenie and Bernard. Andrea Levy said: "None of my books is just about race, they're about people and history". As a matter of fact, there is a lot of history in the book: for example the involvement of Jamaican people in the Second World War and in the Royal Air Force and their relations with American soldiers, their racism and their reactios to black British soldiers (America still had the so-called Jim Crow laws). There is also much about people in the novel: Levy writes about the displacement of English soldiers in remote areas of Asia and the experiences and impressions of the first Jamaican immigrants just after the war, together with the climate of austerity and poorness that England was experiencing at the time.
There is some irony and funny moments in Small Island, a thing that reminds me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), one of my favourite novels. There is a profile of Andrea Levy in the book section of The Guardian (here) and one of the questions that arises is why Andrea Levy didn’t have the same success as Zadie Smith with her novels about black people in London, at least until Small Island came. I think that the answer is the humour: Andrea Levy can use some humour (Hortense’s nickname, “Miss mucky foot”, or Gilbert’s failed “bee business” are some fine examples), a thing that is always appreciated.
One thing that shocked me in the novel are the differences between the Jamaican couple and the Londoners. There is no doubt that Jamaica was settled at the time: Hortense truly believes that she is British and wants to be considered as such. She is and educated young lady and her skin is light, something that she thought English people would immediately notice. She is shocked by the fact that English people can be poor, ugly and dark-skinned as well. She expected to live in a fine house with a back garden, instead she finds a city almost completely destroyed by bombs, a country impoverished by the war, where she must adapt to live in a cold, badly-furnished room with just a small sink and a toilet at the bottom of the stairs.

More on Small Island here


  1. I wasn't familiar with this author, Stefania, but as usual your review makes me wish I were. I love that cover of the book, too!

  2. You're right, the cover is wonderful. Two beautiful women walking along the Thames just in fron of St. Paul's Cathedral, one black and one white. They are equally haughty and elegant, just like the two main carachter in the novel.

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