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

9 comments:

Lucy said...

I have to say that your review really makes me want to read this story. I know that's the point of the review - in general - but your "descriptions" of Hortense and what she goes through makes me feel already invested in her, if that makes sense. Sounds like a good story. Thanks for reviewing and bringing it to our attention.

Phyllis Wheeler said...

This sounds like a very good story. Thanks for reviewing this book!

Lyndi Lamont said...

Sounds like a great book and an important theme. Thanks for reviewing. Tweeted and shared on FB.

Linda McLaughlin

David Cranmer said...

Thanks for the review, Sarah. Must say besides your excellent analysis, I found that movie clip quite interesting. Will add it to my queue.

Jenn Jilks said...

I always enjoy reading reviews by actual authors. You have insight. This is excellent.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Read it a while back but didn't know about the BBC adaptation. Will look for it.

E Wein said...

Little known wild fact about me: I went to first grade in the school run by the teacher's college where Hortense trains in Kingston.

I am a big fan of this book, although I read it many years ago and don't remember it very well.

Barrie said...

How interesting that we both reviewed novels dealing with immigration. I really enjoyed your review. I think my favorite line is: "A masterful storyteller can make you feel empathy in unexpected places." So true, and so hard to pull off. :) Thank you for sharing how the book helped with your own writing. And thank you for including the trailer. .Oh, I am curious to know what made you pick up this book again? Thank you for reviewing!

Sarah Laurence said...

Lucy, that is the highest praise for a reviewer, thank you!

Phyllis, it was indeed.

Lyndi, thanks so much for sharing!

David, my husband saw the series and said it was very true to the book. Our daughter enjoyed it too.

Jenn, thank you!

Patti, I'm looking forward to watching the series.

Elizabeth, what a marvelous coincidence! I remember that you'd lived in Jamaica as a young child. Your historical novels also inspire me.

Barrie, yes, it was a fun coincidence we both reviewed immigration books! As to why I resumed reading: The book was good enough that I always intended to return to it, especially since it was a gift from my now deceased mother-in-law in England. The novel spent years forgotten on our bookshelves until we started our 13 month quarantine. Looking for a new historical novel to read for fun, my husband picked it up. He loved it so much we gave another copy to my mother, who also enjoyed it. By that point, I was looking for WWII era novels to read since my WIP is set in the same time period. Henry recommended Small Island and assured me it would improve. Once I was nearly halfway through, I couldn't put it down. So that was one good thing about the pandemic!