Small Island

by Andrea Levy

Published by McArthur & Company

436 pages, 2004


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Colorific

Reviewed by Nicole Moses

 

Born in London to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is an award-winning and well-respected author whose books examine emigration from Jamaica to England and the effects on everyone involved. Her most recent novel, Small Island, follows suit, telling the story of two couples -- one white, the other black -- who find themselves residing in the same house in postwar England. With an informal writing style, Levy continues to target a Jamaican and European audience as she discusses the universal themes of racism, ignorance and war.

Written entirely in the first person, the story is easy to follow as it is broken up into mini chapters -- each titled with the name of the narrating character. Also, there are time frame markers throughout the book that let us know which period we're reading about. The story begins in England with one of the four main characters in the novel, Victoria (a.k.a. Queenie) Buxton, as she reminisces about a childhood visit to the British Empire Exhibition. Immediately, we're introduced to the themes of racism and ignorance when Queenie visits the African Pavilion and is fascinated by what she sees:

We were in the jungle. Huts made out of mud with pointy stick roofs all around us. And in a hut sitting on a dirt floor was a woman with skin as black as the ink that filled the inkwell in my school desk. A shadow come to life ... But then suddenly there was a man. An African man. A black man who looked to be carved from melting chocolate ... A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with sooty cork. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tires. His hair was wooly as a black shorn sheep. His nose, squashed flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me ... He could have swallowed me up, this big nigger man.

Under the impression that Africans are uncivilized creatures who only understand drums, Queenie is shocked when the man speaks with perfect English. She's equally surprised when she shakes his hand and discovers that: "It was warm and slightly sweaty like anyone else's." To Queenie's credit, she is only a child at this point in the novel but, nonetheless, her cultural ignorance and insensitivity are hard to ignore (and not much changes when she grows older either). More tactless than malicious, at least she's less harmful than most of the other characters we meet in the novel -- her loathsome husband, Bernard, included.

The story then jumps to 1948: to an older Queenie and the house she shares with Bernard at 21 Nevern St. The Second World War has just ended, England is a mess, and Queenie hasn't heard from her husband since he left to join the Royal Air Force. Not knowing if he's dead or alive, she begins taking in tenants in order to survive. It is here on her doorstep that she meets Hortense Roberts: a young, aspiring teacher from Jamaica who has traveled to England to be with her husband, Gilbert Joseph -- one of Queenie's boarders and an old friend of hers from the days when Gilbert was an RAF recruit serving in England.

Snobbish, prim and more refined than most, Hortense is devastated when she realizes that England is not the utopia she imagined it would be. Not only is she disgusted by her husband's atrocious living conditions, but also she encounters racism from the moment she steps off the boat.

Things are just as bleak, if not more, for Gilbert. While serving the Mother Country, he discovers that even in the military he is not safe from prejudice. Instead of being treated with respect and admiration for his service, he's met by clueless civilians and army folk alike who stare and gasp in disbelief at the color of his skin, call him "darkie" and ask if Jamaica is in Africa. Ultimately, Gilbert remains strong and perseveres to rise above the discrimination and hate.

You would think that with such an intense focus on negativity and racism Small Island would be a very heavy and depressing novel. But the truth is, there's an underlying humor laced throughout the entire book which acts as a perfect balance to the negativity. In all, Andrea Levy's fourth novel is extremely well written, smart and entertaining. But at 436 pages it's its own small island, so if you don't have a lot of patience you might not enjoy your stay. | September 2004

 

Nicole Moses is an author, a poet and a songstress. Devouring books and expressing herself creatively through words are her true passions in life. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her fiancé, James, and a scraggly monkey named Homegrown.