There are some words that once spoken will split the world in two. There would be the life before you breathed them and then the altered life after they’d been said. They take a long time to find, words like that. They make you hesitate. Choose with care. Hold on to them unspoken for as long as you can just so your world will stay intact.
Author: Andrea Levy
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published in 2004 by Headline Publishing Group
Initial Thoughts: A bold story of post-colonial England. Brilliant characters by an author who does them justice.
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Just when I thought I knew about the apartheid, understood the suffering people went through, and was familiar with the history, Small Island throws my narrow mindedness out the window. Books like these are learning experiences. From the beginning I was hooked to the story my reactions ranging from jubilance to pity to outright rage. How full of hope and sorrow Andrea Levy had captured this story!
Small Island gives its readers cultural history from various perspectives. I really appreciated this format of the story because, for one, it did not shy away at all from portraying human emotions and actions in all its vulgarity.
I love the relationship between Hortense and Gilbert! Firstly, you should know, it’s nothing romantic. In fact, I can’t even say Hortense and Gilbert are in love despite their marriage. They behave like spiteful children towards each other and I loved reading the progression of the relationship. There were moments of sweetness that Their relationship is one that made me realize about the sacrifices and the lengths people go to to have this idealized Western life, you know?
Politeness has always been my policy. It makes the good people of England revise what they think of you, if only for a second or two. They expect us colony men to be uncultured. Some, let us face it, do not expect us to talk at all. ‘It speaks, Mummy, it speaks,’ has been called after me. Oh, yes, Mummy, it speaks and when it speaks it usually speaks with courtesy.
There were many disturbing moments in the novel that made me want to cry out. We have these people, who in spite of having fought on the forefront of England’s war, are treated with no respect. There was a scene in the book where Gilbert, a Jamaican, had a conversation with two Africans; Gilbert having no clue about the treatment of the Africans in the West and these two men trying to warn him. Something about that scene just made me cry. Perhaps it was the dashed hope or the blinded optimism that Gilbert – and Hortense – held for England. Still, in spite of the tribulations and mistreatment, I was awed by the dignity they held in the face of their seclusion.
Hortense starts out as someone with a superiority complex, who is taken in by the idea of England which is soon dashed. As sad as it was, I think this was the point where Hortense’ revelation begins and it makes her more understanding.
Queenie is a very interesting character who, sort of, toes the line. She is a good-natured and generous woman but there were moments where her words were racist. I think this is something that many of us are unconsciously guilty of. We have our good intentions, but what use are they if we remain in ignorance? Then, there’s Bernard who is in all ways a repulsive man. He is the quintessential racist bigot.
The story is a slow read that relies heavily on its character’s. This suited the novel’s plot well as I found it gave me better insight to England’s post-WWII climate. It is a shocking novel that will, no doubt, make some of its readers uncomfortable but this is an important piece of history I think everyone should familiarize themselves with.
Have you read a book by a Jamaican author? Which book with a theme on family and diaspora would you recommend?
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