Today I have a pleasure to host Patrick, the founder of gamobo.wordpress.com, who reviewed book that I recommended to him. Enjoy reading!
Small Island is a novel written by Andrea Levy, first published in 2004. The story follows multiple characters as Britain enters and exits World War II, detailing each individual journey with deeply personal narratives of hope, betrayal, anger, and salvation. Hortense is an educated Jamaican woman chasing a dream in London; Gilbert is her husband, an ex-soldier from the Royal Air Force looking for work after the war; Queenie is the peculiar British housewife willing to accept non-whites as lodgers in her home; and Bernard is her husband who comes back from the war to find he has nothing left.
This review will consider the three important components to any novel: plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers.
Small Island is a drama novel. Punctuating the main story are issues of love, loneliness, war, and racism, and although they are separate terms in their own right, the novel successfully rebounds them off one other, showing us how social problems and individual problems are inherently interconnected.
Levy effectively portrays the horror of war both on the battlefield and on the domestic front, and not just the obvious harm and loss of life, but the psychological and emotional damage both on individuals and families. It is inevitable for bloodshed and violence on a warlike scale to leave irreversible scars, and this is a book that examines how different lives got on during the madness and cruelty of World War II, as well as how they picked up the pieces afterwards.
Gilbert and Hortene in particular face the added difficulty of remaining “the enemy” even after being on the good guys’ side, on account of their skin colour. Though racism is nothing new, both in real life and its portrayal in literature, Small Island provides another perspective on its absurdity given the book’s context. They fought against tyranny for freedom and justice, and yet there is still a problem when a black man is seen walking down the street with a white woman. It is this extra historical dimension that makes the book interesting, as well as the underrepresented Jamaican perspective.
There are a couple of love stories strung along the novel, and while they have bearing on the main plot, they are never fully fleshed out, and the most convincing relationship (Hortense and Gilbert’s) only develops at novel’s end. Perhaps the novel deliberately chose not to focus on its romantic aspect, but as a love story I never felt sorry for any of the characters, and perhaps that may have been a missed opportunity.
Just about every character (except one) we get is engaging and unique, providing different viewpoints that come clashing together in the final culminating chapters.
My favourite character was Hortense. Proud and haughty in the beginning, it was interesting watching her progress as she came crashing into the cold hard wall of reality: being a dark-skinned woman in 1940s London. As readers, we fall short of ever completely feeling sorry for her (except for one part at the end), because her vanity demands that she be served a slice of humble pie, but it never gets to the point where she becomes antagonistic; merely extremely naive. Her interactions with Gilbert are especially endearing (for both characters), even though we’re laughing at them. People have dreams and expectations, and though Small Island is a shorthand version of life’s challenges and obstacles, Hortense and Gilbert’s triumphs were consistently entertaining to read.
Queenie was also a very interesting character. Somewhat eccentric and unabashedly liberal, Queenie represents the domestic war front, for what else do you call a battle between two races, two sexes, and two ideologies? She is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and to top it all off Hitler comes knocking on the door with air raids. Even still, Queenie perseveres and shows us the psychological aspects of household boredom transforming slowly into fear. Her story is different from Hortense’s in that there are zero prospects of a happy resolution.
The least engaging character was Bernard. His story is told near the end, and as such we have very little reason to care for him, since we’re waiting to see how Hortense, Gilbert, and Queenie turn out. What is strange is that his story takes place in India, far removed from the other characters that we care about, resulting in what seems like a misstep for the author. Perhaps Levy was trying to give us variety, but she ends up trying to do much for very little.
The narrative is serviceable for the most part, though missing words and odd phrases occurred frequently enough to be disruptive (half of this being the fault of the copy editor). The Jamaican perspective (both in terms of outlook and dialogue) was convincing and offers a novel storytelling voice. Gilbert’s consternation at the ignorance of foreigners regarding Jamaica is particularly justified, as we don’t often see the story of racism from this angle. Hortense’s realization as her hopes and dreams crash down upon her are visceral and touching, all the more so because her narrative remains consistent and true to character.
In contrast, Levy’s portrayal of Queenie’s and Bernard’s narratives feel authentically English, and the author is to be commended for writing one book in two completely separate modes. Though beautiful similes are uncommon and profound metaphors were sparse, the narrative does an outstanding job portraying the honesty of the character’s plights and their thoughts, and honest writing is never bad writing.
I recommend this novel to any fans of historical fiction, particularly if they have an eye for World War II and/or the Jamaican-British point of view. This is an intimate tale with multiple perspectives, brought together in a story that is all about humanity.
Many thanks to Patrycja for the recommendation and the review swap. Her review of The Blind Assassin can be found here gamobo.wordpress.com for your reading pleasure.
Thanks for reading!