Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Although Small Island is now one of my favorite historical novels, I was so disappointed by how one character treated other people that I quit reading for several years. Abandoned by her white father and Black mother, Hortense was raised in Jamaica by relatives who nourish and educate her but skimp on love. Seeking a better life, Hortense steals her best friend's boyfriend, a dashing Royal Air Force veteran, to immigrate to London. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph is hardworking and ambitious too, but his patient kindness and good humor stands in sharp contrast to her judgemental pride. Their struggle against racism is a fresh spin on the classic British World War II novel.

In 1948 Hortense sails into London and discovers a dirty, bombed out city and a shabby husband that fail to match her dreams. The narrative then rewinds to the backstories of the four central characters. The Josephs' white landlady, Queenie, is a delightfully irascible character who dares to rent rooms to people of color when her racist husband, Bernard, fails to return home from war. In many ways Bernard's miserable story is the most poignant of all, surprising me. A masterful storyteller can make you feel empathy in unexpected places.

Author Photo by Angus Muir
The child of Jamaican immigrants in England, author Andrea Levy has so much compassion for all of her characters. Their personal histories help the reader understand how childhoods circumscribed by misfortune, poverty, racism, and/or lost love have shaped these flawed characters. They frequently misunderstand each other, but the reader can piece together their true intentions by knowing the full story. 

The titular "small island" is Jamaica or Great Britain, but it is also a metaphor for how people can isolate themselves by their own prejudices. This realistic novel shows how systemic racism corrupts and hurts everyone in its path. The heavy theme is lightened by a full cast of quirky Dickensian characters. If you can get past the abrasive opening chapters, this brilliant book builds momentum as the characters make mistakes but slowly learn to be a bit more tolerant and forgiving. By the end, we are left with hope.

As a writer, I received a second gift: inspiration. When crafting an historical novel it's hard to decide when to start the novel. The contemporary reader may need more background to situate themselves in an unfamiliar time period, but starting with backstory and historical context can bog down the narrative. Although two of the main characters of Small Island are from Jamaica, it made more sense to open in London because the book is about immigration. The best known example of this narrative structure, in medias res, would be the Odyssey. If starting in the middle of a journey worked for Homer and Levy, maybe it could work for me! 

There's also a BBC adaptation with an all star cast: Naomie Harris (mom from Moonlight) as Hortense, Ruth Wilson (Rose from Downton Abbey) as Queenie, David Oyelowo (MLK from Selma) as Gilbert, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Bernard. 

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@Barrie Summy