Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Small Island

I finished Small Island today, wiping away tears on the E train uptown at 9:30 this morning. It’s a substantial, moving novel. I feel like I’m last to the party on this one, but I’ll write a little bit about it nonetheless. It concerns two married couples, one black and Jamaican, one white. Neither couple is well-matched and the unhappiness, the bad fit of their marriages drives the plot. The Jamaicans are part of the Windrush generation, the Caribbean WWII veterans (and the women they brought with them) who came to England in 1948 in search of work. While war-ravaged England had work for non-white immigrants, it didn’t have much place for them to live.

That’s where the book takes place, in 1948 when Queenie, whose husband Bernard has not returned from duty in India, takes in Gilbert and, later, Hortense, his wife as lodgers. The small island refers first to the “boys” from islands smaller than Jamaica but, ultimately, to England itself, a small island full of residents ignorant of “their” empire, petty-minded toward the soldiers who’d fought to defend it.

The structure is pretty straightforward, but the book doesn’t feel schematic: in fact, it took me quite a while to see clearly how she had done it. We are with each of the four characters “Before” and in “1948.” They’re flawed people who face big obstacles. The depictions of racism in England are disturbing but the depictions of the evil and small-minded actions of the American G.I.s were even more painful for me to read because they ring so true. There’s an amazing scene of a small race riot when Americans try to impose Jim Crow laws on a movie theater.

Reading the conclusion today, I was moved by Gilbert, the Jamaican veteran, who gives an amazing speech against racism. I was so moved, in fact, that, as much as I’d been longing for Levy to give her characters a chance at vindication and self defense, I thought this was perhaps going a little far. I turned the page, and the weaselly Bernard just shrugs, utterly unwilling and unable to understand his accent. That seemed like a lovely comic touch that also brought one of the book’s points—about the difficulty of recognizing intelligence in the face of difference (of race, of accent, of language)--home.

This is a rich, character-driven novel that’s set in a beautifully rendered, bleak post-war London. What a treat!

You can read an interview with Andrea Levy on the Orange Prize page.

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