Small Island

by Andrea Levy

Paperback, 2004

Call number




Picador (2004)


Returning to England after the war Gilbert Joseph is treated very differently now that he is no longer in an RAF uniform. Joined by his wife Hortense, he rekindles a friendship with Queenie who takes in Jamaican lodgers. Can their dreams of a better life in England overcome the prejudice they face?

Media reviews

Levy's greatest achievement in ''Small Island'' is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals. Gilbert is astonished to discover that although he can reel off the names of England's canals and list the major industries of each English town, most English people can't even find Jamaica on a map. ''How come England did not know me?'' he asks. Hortense's training as a teacher counts for nothing in England, and while she may have won a prize for reciting Keats's ''Ode to a Nightingale'' at school, she can't make herself understood by a London taxi driver. Levy understands the complex relationship between color and class. Light-skinned Hortense has been brought up as a lady, and she initially despises Gilbert for his coarser manners. She also looks down on Queenie for being less educated than she is. The slow development of Hortense's respect for her husband as she begins to understand the challenges he faces (many of which she will confront herself) is one of the most moving aspects of the book. ''Small Island'' is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope.
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Small Island operates on a larger canvas than Levy's previous novels. Set in India, England and Jamaica, it is as far-reaching a work as White Teeth. Yet it is written in a plain, homely style, one that is keen for us to attend to the subtle shifts and twists that its characters undergo. Levy undercuts any assumption that race alone defines them, and is keen to highlight those symmetries and parallels in their life experiences. One can easily see it being turned into a popular drama. It's neither splashy nor experimental, but for thoughtfulness and wry humour cannot be faulted.
Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It's honest, skillful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy's big book.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
This novel revolves around four primary characters: a Jamaican couple who moves to London in the first wave of postwar immigration from the West Indies in 1948, and an Anglo British woman who lives in a large house in Earls Court while her husband, a meek bank clerk, serves in the Royal Air Force during World War II.

Hortense Roberts is the illegitimate daughter of a highly respected Jamaican government official and an illiterate country girl. She is blessed with the "warm honey(ed)" complexion of her father, and looks down upon her mother, with her "bitter chocolate hue" and simple ways. She is raised by her father's relatives, and graduates with distinction from a teacher's college. She desires to become a teacher for students of privilege in a private school in Kingston, but her mother's background eliminates her from consideration. Her good friend and former classmate, Celia Langley, helps her to obtain a teaching position in a local school. Celia is beloved by her students and fellow teachers, but Hortense is sickened by the "wretched black faces" that she encounters in her classroom.

Celia's beau is Gilbert Joseph, a handsome Jamaican man who joined the Royal Air Force during the war and was stationed in the UK. He seeks to return there, as job opportunities in postwar Jamaica are severely limited. When he proposes to Celia, Hortense sees Gilbert as her ticket out of Jamaica. She brazenly and deftly positions herself between the two lovers, and Gilbert agrees to marry her, in exchange for payment of his fare from Jamaica to the UK.

Gilbert has great difficulty in locating a place to rent, until he turns up unexpectedly at the door of Victoria "Queenie" Bligh, who cares for her ailing father-in-law in her husband's absence. The war is over, but it is 1948, and Bernard Bligh has yet to return home or contact his wife. Queenie rented rooms to Jamaican airmen during the war to make money, and agrees to let a room to Gilbert, despite the protests of her neighbors, who are dismayed by the influx of "wogs" into their neighborhood. His wife joins him after several months, but is appalled by the room he expects her to live in. Her spirit is ground down by the appalling racism that comes from Londoners, who she thought would be civilized and welcoming to her, and she slowly begins to understand the difficulties her husband and countrymen will have to overcome to survive there.

Shortly afterward, Bernard turns up, unannounced and quite unexpectedly. Due to his traumatic experiences during the war and his ingrained prejudices he is disgusted by the Jamaicans that have taken up residence in his home. Queenie refuses to allow him to kick out the intruders, and she will not allow him to share a bed with her. She does not give him a clear reason why she wants to remain distant from him, but all is made clear a few weeks later, after a shocking event that turns the Bligh house inside out.

Small Island, the winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction, the 2004 Whitbread Prize, and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Fiction, is an unforgettable, humorous and painfully sad story of the experiences of whites and blacks in postwar Britain. Levy brilliantly captures the shock and despair of the first wave of West Indian immigrants to the UK in a passage that compares England to a distant and dear relative, who calls the visitor to come to her aid. Instead of the refined and welcoming Mother, our visitor is met by a haggardly, dirty woman who looks at him askance and asks, 'Who the bloody hell are you?' Levy does an excellent job in portraying both sides of the story, as Londoners are traumatized by repeated invasions during and after the war: immigrants from war-torn Europe, soldiers from America and elsewhere, citizens made homeless from the London Blitz, and the massive postwar influx of Poles and West Indians to the UK. The novel's end was a bit too tidy for me, but not enough to affect my rating of this highly recommended and important book.
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LibraryThing member msf59
I should just defer to Darryl’s (kidzdoc) excellent review! He nailed it perfectly! As you know I keep things much simpler, maybe it’s my blue-collar roots. This amazing novel follows two couples, one Jamaican, one English, as their lives intertwine in post-war London. At it’s core it’s a book about racism, and Levy does not flinch from all of it’s ugly implications. She has crafted beautifully realized characters, with my favorite being Gilbert, a Jamaican who joined the RAF. Once the war is over, he quickly becomes just another reviled black man. There is a fine moment when Gilbert spots a glittering broach on the sidewalk, proud of his good fortune and reaches down to find it nothing but flies on a dog turd. He also meets a white woman in the street that offers him sticky candy and he breaks into sobs at her sheer kindness. This book has many such stirring moments.
I want to thank my friends here on LT, for this recommendation and now I’ve found my favorite read of the year…so far!
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LibraryThing member brenzi
Andrea Levy's story, set alternately in Jamaica, Great Britain, Burma and India during the years before and three years after WWII, tell a riveting story of love, racism, cruelty, immigration, determination and the lasting effects of war. Told by four storytellers, Levy allows the reader to peel back the story's many layers over time and distance.

Gilbert Joseph is anxious to get away from a life with no future in Jamaica. He joins the RAF and goes to England where he is first exposed to blatant racism, as well as the wonders of the modern world. While there, he meets and becomes friends with Queenie Bligh, an English woman married to a man who doesn't know she exists.

Queenie tells the story from her point of view beginning when she was a child growing up on a farm in Great Britain. When Gilbert comes back to England after the war, she rents a room to him in her house which helps her to survive since her husband, Bernard has not returned from his posting in the East.

Hortense Roberts, the third storyteller, is a very proud Jamaican school teacher, who is also anxious to leave the poor island and go to the Mother Country, where she feels opportunities abound. She offers to give Gilbert the money to return to England, after he returns from RAF duty, as long as he marries her and then sends for her after he earns some money in England.

The fourth storyteller is Bernard Bligh, Queenie's husband, who returns from duty in Burma and India as an airman, a changed man.

Levy is masterful at weaving the story through time, location and the four voices. Her description of London during the blitz is stunningly realistic and places the reader on the streets of the city. Bernard's experiences in Burma and India leave you breathless.

But the real stars here are the characters that Levy develops with exacting adroitness. Her use of lyrical language ("I had dreams of attending a university, studying law and acquiring a degree. But my station was lowly-my ideas soared so high above it I could see them lamenting and waving good-bye."-Gilbert Joseph, page 121), Jamaican dialect and attention to detail left me longing for more. 2004 Orange Prize Winner. Absolutely wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
"There are some words once spoken split the world in two. Before you say them and after.” (497)

So it is that the experience of WWII has split the world for the characters in Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Gilbert and Hortense Joseph, and Bernard and Queenie Bligh, alternately narrate the story by chapter. For them, there is only “Before” (the war) and 1948.

Jamaican Gilbert Joseph is an honest and ambitious young man who volunteers with the RAF during WWII to fight for his “Mother Country.” England, he knows, has opportunities to offer that his small island cannot; and in 1948, he dreams to emigrate. Hortense Roberts, a haughty, young school teacher also dreams of a better life in England. Gilbert becomes her ticket off of her native island, and they enter into a marriage of convenience. In England, Queenie Bligh, an compassionate and liberal-minded woman whose husband, Bernard, has not yet returned from war, agrees to board the Josephs. But the reality of their new life is far removed from their dream. Their one-room accommodation is a hovel; and England, far from a land of opportunity, is a nation struggling to recover from the ravages of war. But most humiliating for Gilbert and Hortense is the hateful prejudice which blindsides them, and the incomprehensible reality that they are not welcome in their esteemed “Mother Country.” When Bernard Bligh, a timid, bigoted bank clerk, returns home from the war, what had been an untenable situation becomes unlivable.

“And at that moment I longed to be once more in Jamaica. I yearned for home as a drunk man for whiskey. For only there could I be sure that someone looking on my face for the first time would regard it without reaction. No gapes, no gawps, no cussing, no looking quickly away as if seeing something unsavoury. Just a meeting as unremarkable as passing your mummy in the kitchen. What a thing was this to wish for. That a person regarding me should think nothing. What a forlorn desire to seek indifference.” (315)

Small Island is beautifully written and hauntingly real. Levy develops a cast of unforgettable characters who navigate empire, prejudice, war, and love in an unforgettable story. A must read!
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
"We Jamaicans, knowing our island is one of the largest in the Caribbean, think ourselves sophisticated men of the world. Better than the 'small islanders' whose universe only runs a few miles in either direction before it runs into the sea." (p. 110)

Set during and immediately after World War II, Small Island tells the story of four main characters: Gilbert Joseph, a a Jamaican man recently returned from active duty in World War II; Hortense, his young wife; Queenie, a young English woman whose husband disappeared during the war; and Bernard, Queenie's husband. The setting moves between two time periods: 1948, and "before," and two settings: Jamaica and England. Each chapter is told from a single character's point of view. This produces a rich, character-driven novel that also brilliantly exposes issues of race, culture, and class. The title at first appears to refer to Jamaica, but quickly becomes synonymous with "small-mindedness" on both of the small islands in the story.

By moving between time periods and points of view, Levy reveals connections between the characters' lives, some of which the characters themselves are unaware of.

The plot includes many surprising twists, and I do not want to reveal much in this review. For me, the characters made the novel. I especially liked the strong female protagonists, Hortense and Queenie. Hortense, recently arrived from Jamaica, joins Gilbert as a lodger in Queenie's house. She is young and naive, with high expectations that are dashed when she sees where Gilbert lives, and when she encounters certain realities about being a Jamaican woman living in England in 1948. Queenie has transformed from young wife to independent woman and, being unusually open-minded on issues of race, has made a living renting rooms primarily to "coloureds." She refuses to give in to her neighbors' objections, which leaves her somewhat isolated in her community. She remains strong while also fighting the loneliness of having lost her husband. Bernard's sudden reappearance upsets Queenie's comfortable routine and challenges the relationships she has forged in his absence. The bonds between Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard are strengthened in surprising ways as the novel reaches its climax.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
What a wonderful sweeping read! I so enjoyed this wonderful 2004 Orange Prize Winner. Small Island has four protagonists/ narrators. Each of them tells their story from their unique experiences and personalities. Queenie is a woman who is relatively easy going and lives in England pre World War 2 - and marries Bernard. Bernard is much older man, staid and difficult . He lives with his aging father. Eventually Bernard heads out to India as part of the RAF, leaving Queenie behind to look after his father and survive the London bombings of WW2.

Hortense and Gilbert come to England from a completly different background and set of circumstances .Gilbert has lived as a somewhat happy go lucky fellow in Jamaica. By contrast, Hortense, also Jamaican, has been brought up by a caucasion family , and has been sent to school by the family that took her in as a child. When the caucasion family falls on hard times - Hortense is sent packing to make a life for herself. Hortense is a proud person. She barely knows Gilbert, but when she discovers that Gilbert is going to England to fight with England as part of the Commonwealth, Hortense pays Gilbert's way to England and marries him purely as a way to get to England in the hopes of a better life.

Many shocks and conflicts await all parties in the story. Racial prejudice within the Army itself and racial and class tensions and prejudices with in England serve to futher make life difficult for all during WW2.

To say more would spoil the plot. But all of these threads eventually come together, and we get an insightful look into Jamica and England during and before WW2 , as well as an inside look into the four different perspectives of each protagonist.

This is sweeping book- crossing times, cultures, and countries. Conversely, it is so personal as each protagonist tells his or her story . While the topic matter is serious, Andrea Levy never gets bogged down with over sentimentality , and she injects a certain amount of levity. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful story. It's a " cracking good read".
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LibraryThing member LizzieD
I really disliked the first 200 or so pages, but I'm glad that I persevered. The characters are limited, damaged people who clutch their limited, damaged lives so closely that they choke on them. They can't see beyond their own need and their casual cruelty is disgusting and scary. These are not noble pariahs, as for instance those in A Fine Balance for whom one desperately wishes good things. These people are petty and mean, and depressingly average.
Hortense Roberts is the bastard child of a country girl and a man of quality in Jamaica. Her grandmother takes her to live with her father's relatives because her skin is golden, and that gives her a chance for a golden life. Her grandmother loves Hortense, but her grandmother is the cousins' servant. Hortense grows up knowing what is right and good within a narrow definition of right and good, and she gives herself to it.
Hortense eventually persuades Gilbert Joseph, her only friend's fellow, to marry her. Gilbert has experienced racism during WWII, but he hopes anyway to make a life for himself in England better than the one he might expect in Jamaica. He is the one open character in the novel. In England he meets Queenie Bligh, the daughter of a village butcher who married Bernard to escape her mother's life. Queenie is a curious mixture of generosity and cruelty. Bernard is a bank clerk, son of a repressed and repressing mother and a father who returned from WWI when Bernard was eight, shellshocked and unspeaking. These four eventually end up in the same house after the war, and their needs begin to change them or change my attitude toward them.
Small Island is an indictment of racism, but it ends with some small hope for common humanity.
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LibraryThing member shihtzu
The "small island" of the title could refer to Jamaica, to England, to Queenie's boarding house. What impressed me most about this novel is that just as you were feeling sympathy toward one character and resentment toward another, the point of view changes and you then understand the motivation, heartaches and ambitions of the character you had previously thought was selfish, or boorish, or insipid.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kimaoverstreet
A gripping novel, my favorite of 2010 so far! Told in 4 voices - 2 Jamaican, 2 English, Andrea Levy's well-woven tale deals with racism and relationships during and after World War II. The characters were complex enough that I liked them all individually, but sometimes in their dealings with one another, I did not. I"ve no doubt that the voices of Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie, and Bernard with stay with me for some time. Very highly recommended!… (more)
LibraryThing member mrstreme
In her Orange Prize winning novel, Small Island, Andrea Levy gave a voice to a probably forgotten and unappreciated aspect of World War II England – the service of Jamaican soldiers and their emigration to the “Mother Country” after the war. During World War II, Jamaica was a British colony, and many Jamaican men volunteered for military service. Many men hoped that their service would offer them opportunities in England after the war. In Small Island, we get a glimpse on what happened to the Jamaican immigrants once they arrived in England.

This novel focused on four main characters: Hortense, a stubborn Jamaican woman whose dream was to always live in England; her husband, Gilbert, who served in the RAF and tried to carve a living in London; Queenie, Gilbert’s landlord; and her husband, Bernard, who was missing for three years before turning up at home. Through these narratives, the reader received a hard look at the racist treatment of Jamaican people – it was definitely reminiscent of how African Americans were treated in our country during this time. If Small Island succeeded at anything, it clearly showed how Jamaicans (and other minorities), despite their service during World War II, were not given a fair shake in British society.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I felt dragged down by Bernard’s narrative. He was the most unenlightening of the four, and he was a hard character to like (racist, sexist and meek). Additionally, I did not like the “surprise” aspect to the ending. It was a little predictable and weighed the story down.

However, despite these reservations, Small Islandtaught me something historically that I did not know before, and for that, I am glad to have read this book.
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LibraryThing member kaebs
I find this book hard to judge. It started well and came together nicely at the end. However most of the 530 pages really where four separate stories about four people whose lives happen to be linked for a short time. Each personal story has its own interest and gives a flavour of the times (1940s Britain). Overall: interesting read and worth the effort to see the story come together, just not gripping enough for me to warrent any more stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member liehtzu
Truly a great read, a beautifully written insight into the workings of marriage, fidelity, love and lovelessness in the context of post war Britain and the arrival of black folks in numbers for the first time to the shores of Albion. An illustration of the innate decency of the English notwithstanding their occasional struggles with racist motivations.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmyers24
This book reveals a side of England in WWII that is largely unknown or denied. A Jamaican man is recruited by the motherland (England) into the R.A.F. but is treated largely as a second-class citizen by the English and especially by the Americans stationed in England. He and his wife board with a white woman whose husband is stationed abroad and who grew up in an impoverished English family and whose marriage is mainly a shell. It can be difficult to follow the characters as the story moves between Jamaican and English family and social circles but the read is well worth the effort of untangling the two worlds.… (more)
LibraryThing member birdsam0610
Small Island was recently made into a television series. Like most book to TV/film adaptations, I haven’t seen it. I tend to reach for the book first, then look into seeing the show. Small Island is also a book that’s won a lot of prizes – the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It’s a good book, with an original idea.
I can’t say that I can recall reading other books about Jamaica, let alone Jamaicans in WWII England and beyond. Levy has taken her own history (her parents moved to England from Jamaica) and made it into an engaging story. The story focuses on two husband and wife pairs: Hortense and Gilbert, newly arrived from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard, an English couple who Hortense and Gilbert rent their room from. But all is not well – Bernard is absent and nobody knows why, Hortense and Gilbert don’t seem to get along and Queenie has her secrets. What are they?

Levy tells the story by moving back and forth between 1948 (when the story is set) and Before, giving us each character’s backstory and unravelling some of the mysteries occurring in 1948. The ‘Before’ sections deal primarily with World War II for Gilbert (he was in the RAF), Bernard (also in the RAF in India) and Queenie (who was dealing with the London bombings). They also delve back into childhood and early adult years, revealing how the two couples came to meet and why things are so awkward. In fact, the majority of the book takes place in the past – I’d be interested to see how the television series copes with this – moving forward and back like the novel or telling the story in a linear fashion. A lot of the suspense comes from not knowing a character’s past, but catching glimpses of problems in 1948. Back in 1948, there are a few bombshells where my mouth was hanging open in surprise – I didn’t see those twists and turns!

The characters in Small Island are flawed. Bernard is very racist by today’s standards, while Queenie is a lot more open-minded. Hortense is very particular with her visions of what England should be like, while Gilbert rolls with the majority of unfair things that happen to him. It was interesting to see the Jamaican couple’s perceptions of what they believed England to be like and the reality they were faced with, not to mention the racism from the English and Americans. The English are quite ignorant in their knowledge of Jamaica, to Hortense and Gilbert’s disgust (England is so important to them, why is Jamaica not so?); it made me think if other countries in the Commonwealth suffer from the same inflated image problem (can you tell me much about Australia?) Which country is the ‘small island’ with all its connotations?

This was thought provoking and original as well as an entertaining book – thoroughly worthy of the awards it won. Well done Andrea Levy.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
Small Island tells the tale of two couples, one English, one Jamaican, whose lives interweave in surprising ways during and in the years following WWII. Queenie and Bernard Bligh are Londoners; Queenie is left behind when Bernard leaves to fight in India. Gilbert and Hortense Joseph are Jamaican. Gilbert comes to England to fight with the RAF, and in Gilbert prim and proper Hortense sees a ticket to the life in England of which she's dreamed. Fate first brings the two couples together, but this chance meeting cements their lives forever. Levy's novel switches among its four main characters in a series of chapters that span three continents. We hear from Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert, and Hortense. All of the characters ffind themselves dealing with the effects of war: Bernard and Gilbert as soldiers, Queenie in the midst of the London bombings and possible widowhood when Bernard disappears. For Hortense wartime cements her desire to create an English life and identity. But war also brings significant lessons on racism, empire, and what it means to live on a "small island," whether British or Jamaican. Levy does a good job portraying the horrors and deprivations of war. She moves easily among four very different characters, in different places. This is an accomplished saga of two families and their wartime experiences.… (more)
LibraryThing member 1morechapter
Winner, Orange Prize 2004
Winner, Whitbread Book of the Year 2004
Winner, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2005

Andrea Levy wrote Small Island as a way to research her Jamaican parents’ immigrant experience. The title, Small Island, is apt as it refers to both Jamaica and Britain. The book takes place both before and after World War II and is comprised of 4 main characters, with each character speaking in his or her own voice throughout the novel. Gilbert and Hortense are a couple from Jamaica who rent a room from Queenie in England. Queenie is renting rooms out because her husband Bernhard has not yet returned from the war.

The novel covers several issues: war, immigration, prejudice, and class. I love historical fiction because history is so much more interesting when it’s portrayed in the personal experiences of the men and women who lived it. I’ve always wondered why England didn’t have as much of a racial problem as the U.S., but in this book we discover that there were, in fact, prejudices that needed to be overcome. While Bernhard was so proud to be a part of Mother England as a Jamaican citizen, enough so that he went to war for her, his ‘Mother’ not only didn’t appreciate his efforts, she didn’t even recognize him as her child.

Each character in the book is so well defined. I got a kick out of Hortense and her ‘white-gloved,’ prudish ways. I appreciated that Queenie was ahead of her time in terms of racism, and even though Bernhard was quite the opposite, I felt sorry for him. Gilbert was perhaps the star of the novel as just an overall good-hearted person and patriot.

Not only did Small Island win the Orange Prize, it was also voted The Best of the Best out of all the winners by the Orange Prize committee chairs. While my favorite Orange winner so far is probably Half of a Yellow Sun, I do understand why Small Island has a strong following as well.
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LibraryThing member bibliobibuli
Years ago, I remember a friend from the British Virgin Islands telling me about "island mentality" - how your whole world view is governed by the geography of the place where you grew up and how islanders have a naturally limited world view. The smaller the island, the smaller the mindset.

Which island is Levy writing about? There's Jamaica, geographically small, a far-flung outpost of the British Isles which nevertheless sends soldiers to fight for "the mother-country" in World War Two, and later provides an army of workers to fill the menial posts the British themselves eschew.

Then there's Britain, larger, but still an island. (As someone remarks in the book, everywhere else is overseas from Britain.) And the inhabitants defintely demonstrate a smallness of mind and a deeply entrenched prejudice against those with a different skin colour.

Small Island is the story of four characters: Gilbert who leaves Jamaica to join the RAF when war breaks out and finds himself stationed in Britain; Hortense, a prim and proper school teacher, a dyed-blue anglophile who marries Gilbert simply to fulfil her fantasy of living in Britain; their landlady, Queenie, a kindly and gregarious Englishwoman who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher's daughter to find herself married to a a dull banker; Bernard, her husband, who finds himself framed and disgraced in the war in India. Much of the joy of the book is the interplay of voices, as each character steps forward to tell their own story in an interweaving of past and (1948) present.

I fell in love with Gilbert who speaks in a Jamaican patois (that reminded me of the West indian kids I used to teach) and read the parts of the book he narrated with a big smile on my face (especially the account of his cousin losing the bees that were supposed to net them a fortune). And there is gentle comedy in the growing love between Gilbert and Hortense that absolutely delights.

There's no defense that I can make (as a Brit) when confronted with the kind of prejudice the book depicts - I think Levy probably got got it exactly right.

Would I recommend it?

Definitely. A very enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
This is a suprisingly refreshing novel that tackles a subject rarely written about: Jamaican men (as "British subjects") recruited to serve England's RAF during World War II. As an American, I was ignorant to the racial prejudice and hatred against the Jamaican soldiers that permeated how the RAF was shaped; and greviously affected the soldiers after the war, when they attempted to build a life in England. The author shows great passion, humor and care with the stories told from Hortense's and Gilbert's perspective. They are wonderful characters. And while Ms. Levy attempts to find compassion towards the white characters, Bernard and Queenie, mostly we just see their prejudice, hate and confusion. Every time Queenie takes a stand towards equality, she cautiously takes two back. Bernard is an insipid, rascist wreck and it was hard to care for him at all. I think that is the point though. But the uniqueness of the story, the wonderful voices of Gilbert and Hortense carry the day. Hortense too has her own prejudices (she being "honey" colored and often looks down on the native Jamaicans not afforded her schooling and "refinement"), but she grows by the end of the novel. Overall, this is highly recommended as a transporting read of epic proportions. I learned a lot and just really enjoyed the beauty of the language, both in Jamaica and during warn-torn (and a fledgling recovery of) England. It definitely deserves the awards it has received.… (more)
LibraryThing member yosbooks
I would probably not picked this book up but a librarian reccommended it. I really enjoyed it. The accents by the very talented reader really made it come alive. It was a little slow to start but rapidly got better. There are some fantastic scenes that I just laughed so hard in - especially the scene when Hortense first arrives from Jamaica.… (more)
LibraryThing member solinajoki
I really liked this book. I love the way the author crafts her words. The various aspects of racism were really interesting as well as WWII in Britain for civilians.
LibraryThing member cupcake
At first, I did not like this book. I found it difficult to read. The first 200 pages were very daunting for me, which is very unusual. The Jamaican dialect was difficult to follow. However, I read on only to be astonished by how much the book surprised me. It was an amazing story about four people with intriguing twists of fate I found startling. I am extremely glad I stuck with it. What a fantastic novel. I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a different book. The way the characters' lives were connected and how profoundly she presents the issues of war and race are unique and very well done. This is probably the first contemporary fiction book I've read that I actually liked and thought worthy to recommend to others.… (more)
LibraryThing member raidergirl3
This was a winning book for the Orange Prize in 2004 and I can see why - readable, historical, big themes, great characters with plenty of flaws but realistic.

Why the title, Small Island? Because I don't think it gives me the right memory of the book. There are four main characters who interact in 1948. We meet them in their individual pasts, and then all together in a rooming house in London in 1948. The back and forth in time works well, as knowing where they end up makes seeing how they started worthwhile. Two of our characters, Hortense and Gilbert are from Jamaica, a very small island. Gilbert served in the RAF in England during the war, and then emigrates, with Hortense, his wife, following him to London and the rooming house. The rooming house is run by Queenie, and is the house her husband Bernard grew up in. Bernard is British, with a capital B, but as he travels the world, maybe he discovers that England is a small island as well, not as important as he once thought. Queenie is the star of the book, a small island unto herself in post-war England, with progressive (ie non-racist) views of the immigrants.

That's it for 'small island', the best I can do. It stilll doesn't feel like the right title, even after I've managed to connect it to each character, and maybe an overall theme. I think if it was called 'Queenie', it would be more memorable about the character, the Britishness of the book, and the nickname that I could probably hear in a Jamaican accent.

I loved how Hortense was more British than anyone in the story, and yet was looked upon as a barbarian immigrant by the locals. Bernard was an idiot, who had the least growth, unless growth is considered waking up to his world around him and participating in his own life. Nah, still a stiff-upper lip, totally clueless in his unaccountable superiority, naive idiot. Queenie and Gilbert were the most realistic about life, and were charming, wonderful characters dealing with a terrible hand that life dealt them, and yet improving their situations somewhat.

All the good things I've heard about Small Island were true - a wonderful book (with a lousy title).
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LibraryThing member nicx27
This is my second reading of Small Island, the first being when the book first came out in hardback. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed by it then, but this time round I really enjoyed it.

It's the story of four people, Queenie Bligh and her husband Bernard, and Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph. Gilbert is a Jamaican, stationed in England during the war, after joining the RAF to fight for his mother country. He met Queenie whilst he was over here and, after the war has ended and he has made the decision to return to England with his new wife Hortense, he looks Queenie up to take up board and lodgings in her house in Earl's Court. Bernard isn't very pleased as he has a real prejudice against black people but, as he didn't return home from the war until three years after fighting has ended, he can't really complain.

There's a lot more to the story than this, but I don't think I need to go into that in great detail. The story is fairly well known and the recent TV adaptation (very well done, incidentally) will have increased the book's popularity.

The story is split into sections set in 1948, and sections for each of the four characters from 'before'. Hortense's section is first and, as she's a fairly unlikeable character for most of the book, this bit dragged slightly for me. However, once I moved on to Gilbert's story and to Queenie's I was much more involved with the storyline and the characters.

The racial prejudices portrayed in the book are quite stark, and it's hard to believe the book is set only a generation or two ago, given Britain's current multi-cultural society. Andrea Levy has written a gem of a book, and one which I think will really stand the test of time as a work of literary fiction, and also as a social commentary. It's definitely a book that's well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member akeela
This is a special book that had me laughing out loud, and then there were the tears … it is funny, and it is profound, and I recommend it highly.
LibraryThing member richardderus
This woman and I are not a good fit. I read and loathed The Long Song, finding it tedious and contrived. I got this excrescence out of the library because I thought it unfair to judge an author by one book. Hell, I even gave EGGERS more than one book.

Small Island is a mean-spirited, judgmental, and sarcastic book. In the guise of "telling it like it is", Levy manages to make the reader detest every single person she describes as a narrow, unkind, worthless human being. I know that this is perceived by others as ironic and humourous (misspelling deliberate, that was my attempt at ironic distancing, didja see? didja see?), but I don't believe it. She's an angry, angry woman who's out to flagellate a world that doesn't run the way she thinks it should.

And by "she" I mean the authorial "she." I don't know Ms. Levy at all and I don't want to particularly, if she's anything like the books she writes. Scant danger of that, I suppose, since I live on Long Island and she on Small Island.

Hated it. Would burn it if I could, but it's the liberry's copy. It's too late for most of y'all, but not recommended to the point of saying "run away! run away!"
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