Andrea Levy’s award winning novel Small Island follows the lives of four people from very different backgrounds and cultures and explores their experiences during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. The novel spans two time periods, the before and 1948, and has four narrative voices: Queenie, Bernard, Hortense and Gilbert. Queenie is a white British woman whose husband, Bernard, has failed to return from the war, despite the fact it ended three years ago. In order to help her financial difficulties and ease her loneliness she takes in lodgers, one of whom, Gilbert, is a Jamaican man who fought for Britain during the war and returns with his wife, Hortense, in the post-war years both hoping for a fresh start. Throughout the novel we are taken on a journey through Britain, Jamaica and India, discovering how our four protagonists coped throughout the war and how they all came together at 21 Nevern Street.
This novel explores many themes, primarily that of racism within the British Empire and the hypocrisy of a country that is prepared to fight alongside men of a different race, but to essentially snub them when the battle is done. It discusses the devastation of the Second World War, focusing on the underlying racial tensions experienced in the Allies camp and how this played out in Britain. I enjoyed how the war narrative focused on what was happening in India at the end of the War, as this is an area of history I know little about, and I appreciated how comparisons were drawn regarding the racial nature of Britain across the Empire; Levy doesn’t just focus on how Jamaicans were treated when they arrived in Britain in the post war years, but on how Indians were treated by the British troops who were over there fighting/protecting the Empire. This in turn parallels the treatment of working class bombing victims and their necessary moves to slightly posher areas of London. One disgruntled neighbour declares, ‘I’m not happy to have those people living here. This is a respectable street. Those kind of people do not belong here.’ This attitude crops up many times during the course of the novel, and I loved how Levy adapts the circumstances, so that the message highlights the prejudices of many levels of society. Relationships in the forms of friendship, love and convenient marriages are all brought to light throughout the novel, and I think Levy depicts the latter in a thought-provoking way, how important is love when a marriage can bring you what you desire?
Overall I cannot claim to have loved this novel. Yes it was interesting and I enjoyed viewing the war from different perspectives and learning more about the role British colonies played during the Second World War, but I was not gripped. I did not rush to pick the novel up or feel an overwhelming urge to shut out the rest of the world to find out if Queenie’s husband would return, or if Gilbert would win Hortense round. The last 50/60 pages were amazing and, ironically, I couldn’t put it down for those final pages, but for me it was too little, too late – I need more than 60 pages at the end of a 500+ novel.