Small Island by Andrea Levy
Andrea Levy has a real flair for voices, for the shaping and sculpting of characters. In her hands, people who initially border on the stereotypical rapidly become warm, well rounded figures with whom it is easy to engage; in Small Island she manages to humanise the most potentially unsympathetic of characters without it ever feeling forced.
The winner of the 2004 Orange Prize, Levy’s fourth novel is an engrossing tale of cultural relations in post-war Britain. Set in 1948, the country is still very much in the process of recovering from the effects of the Second World War. With her husband still overseas, Queenie Bligh rents out the rooms in her Earls Court house to Jamaican lodgers despite the disapproval of her neighbours. Among them are Gilbert Jones, a former RAF officer now working for the postal service, and his naïve wife Hortense, a proud, young teacher, still fresh off the boat.
Throughout the novel Levy switches frequently between Queenie’s voice and those of Gilbert and Hortense, and eventually also with that of Bernard, Queenie’s absent husband. Gilbert initially appears to be a well-meaning but incompetent man, a figure of fun, but through flashbacks Levy gradually reveals his warm, compassionate nature, his tender friendship with Queenie, and the everyday indignities he has to endure courtesy of his English neighbours and co-workers. And, though unbearably haughty to begin with, it is hard not to feel for Hortense as her cherished image of the ‘Mother Country’ crumbles after a series of disappointments and humiliations. Even Bernard, a cold and stand-offish character, has had to grapple with much hardship in his life and is dealing with it in the best way he can.
Levy has a knack for undercutting expectations, on more than one occasion what begins as a moment of comedy gradually becomes a scene with the power to both move and disturb. This technique is most effective during such gently humourous episodes as Gilbert’s misguided attempt to make some money by keeping bees or Queenie and Gilbert’s wartime attempt to visit the cinema, both of which end up detouring to far darker places. Levy's simple, measured prose is capable of delivering quite a bite.
This is a novel packed with wonderful moments and memorable images; it is also incredibly well researched, though it never feels burdened by this fact, instead Levy successfully blends the familiar with the startling: she contrasts the petty, sniping intolerance of the British with the overt hatred of the American GIs, she describes the aftermath of an air raid with an eye for absurd but brutal details. Though some of her plot twists are a little too neat, she makes vivid a specific slice of history rarely touched upon in literature.
Part of an increasingly rich seam of writing about the immigrant experience of Londoners, Small Island is an ambitious, intelligent novel and, crucially, it’s a far more satisfying read than other over-hyped offerings in this area; Andrea Levy deserves all the accolades and acclaim that this novel has garnered for her.