Andrea Levy's Whitbread and Orange Prize-winning novel has emigrated from England to American shores with well-deserved ballyhoo. Levy has intricately woven the lives of four small islanders --- two from Jamaica, two from England --- into a tapestry of time and place so intimate and full of color that it lingers in the reader's memory long after closing the cover.
Gilbert Joseph, a patriotic, mixed race Jamaican subject of the British crown, enlists in the RAF during World War II. When he returns to Jamaica after serving in England, his small island seems hopelessly behind the times and beneath his acquired knowledge and skills.
Hortense Roberts, half white, half black, has received higher education in Kingston College and sees herself as more British than native, therefore deserving more of life than her small island can offer. Hortense and Gilbert are attracted to each other, not by lust but by desire of a better life, and forge their future in London through a financial arrangement.
On another small island, England, Queenie is the rural daughter of a butcher who flees to London to marry the bland but middle-class banker Bernard, who also feels called to duty and enlists. Queenie, now on her own, takes in bombed-out East End refugees, much to the dismay of the neighbors. When the war ends and Bernard fails to return, Queenie sublets their large home to immigrants, thus befriending Gilbert and Hortense and other coloreds. When Bernard finally does turn up, the cultural and racial clash, which has been simmering throughout the story, comes to a head.
Writing in the four voices of each main character, Levy humorously portrays each as they see themselves and one another, presenting their foibles as great attributes or horrendous faults, depending on who is speaking. Gilbert Joseph is a charming, funny and loving gentle man, or a bumbling idiot; a brilliant man with a future as a lawyer, or a black lackey truck driver. Hortense is a proper British woman with high language skills, or a gaudily dressed peasant barely capable of clear thought or speech. Bernard and Queenie are as colorfully drawn and endearing in their painfully human situations.
Levy fleshes out these four characters with such clarity and purpose as to bring them fully to life in a story that swings back and forth from wartime to postwar England and Jamaica. In less skillful hands, the plot would be a quagmire to navigate, but in SMALL ISLAND we are treated to a journey of discovery through the hopes and aspirations of immigrants and the movement that was the result of a changed world after World War II.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 23, 2011