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Small Island

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  18,668 Ratings  ·  1,209 Reviews
Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, ...more
Paperback, 441 pages
Published April 1st 2005 by Picador (first published 2004)
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Esmeralda Plangesis This is an excellent book and I suggest that it should definitely be on a list of prescribed books for High School readers. It gives valuable insights…moreThis is an excellent book and I suggest that it should definitely be on a list of prescribed books for High School readers. It gives valuable insights into the experience of migration and difficulties of both sides to adapt to changes involving both racial and class differences. Andrea Levy's historical perspective is a must read for anyone keeping track of Britain's fast changing society.(less)

Community Reviews

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Bookworm Sean
Books like this are why I study English literature at university, books like this are why I read so ferociously. Ferocious reading? Now that’s an interesting image. But, honestly, I’m careful when I read. I wouldn’t want to scratch those pages! But, I’m digressing here.

This book is an eye-opener; it is an excellent teacher of part of English cultural history. Could you imagine fighting for a country not your own, and then being treated by the citizens of that country like dirt? Those you ended
Aug 06, 2007 Christine rated it it was amazing
I loved this book, but I realize that I am very biased because I am Jamaican, and have many relatives who emigrated to the UK from Jamaica, so the characters were immediately real and recognizable to me.

Some reviewers have complained that her use of dialect was heavy-handed, but from my perspective, she actually tones down Jamaican Patois (also called Jamaican Creole) significantly to make it understandable to non-Jamaicans. On a visit to Jamaica last year, I heard her interviewed and she said
May 21, 2007 Angela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic novel, a real eye opener! Small Island is a novel that connects continents in wartime. It takes the reader from Jamaica to England and on to India in the days of the second World War. Four main characters connect the dots. A Gilbert, a young Jamaican who joins the RAF to fight Hitler but finds himself fighting racism instead; Queenie, a young white woman who takes in Jamaican Lodgers; her husband Bernard, who is fighting the Japs in India; and the Jamaican girl Hortense, who travels to ...more
Petra Eggs
I wanted to enjoy this book because I am a West Indian now and did the reverse journey - first world UK to backward little Caribbean island, but the journey was a lot more enjoyable than the book.

I finished it by an act of will and apart from odd scenes of violence or lasciviousness, it didn't hold my attention. It was such an easy read that the pages flowed into each other leaving no trace on my brain at all. Like the sea washing the sand clean with each wave, so did each page disappear from my
Sep 11, 2010 Chris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm trying to figure out my reaction to this book, other than the fact that I loved it. I have a hard time putting into words my feelings about this book.

Small Island is the story of four people in the aftermath of WW II. Levy is concerned with the experience of immigrants and racial issues in post War London.

I dont think the story could have been told in a shorter span, and it is one of those that you understand why it won the awards that it did. I didn't find the dialect annoying or hard to fo
Mixed feelings about this one; read very easily and the historical context is one that interests me. However it did not really do what I thought it set out do, which was to chronicle the early years of the Windrush generation. There are four narrators; Hortense and Gilbert from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard who are English (although Bernard feels like a bit of an add on, arriving in the last quarter of the book). That makes the book feel a little disjointed. A great deal of time is also spent ...more
A well researched, well written book with surprising twists and turns. The author manages to show compassion for all the characters and write the story in such a way that this international bestseller speaks to
a very wide audience. The humor is the the glue which keeps the story riveting and a delight to read despite the hardships and dire circumstances the characters had to endure.

Hortense Joseph, an immigrant from Jamaica, settles in London in 1948, after leaving her beloved island for a bett
Aug 26, 2011 Laura rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Every single person on this earth
Recommended to Laura by: Colleen
Wow. I wish that could be my entire review. It feels like "wow" should be sufficient. But in the interest of getting this book into the hands of as many people as possible, I'll attempt to do this book some justice. With NO Spoilers. No worries.

This is not a book I would normally choose to read. (I read it with a book group.) The description made it seem depressing, and just too "heavy" for me. However, Andrea Levy is such a gifted writer that she is able to breathe humor into even desolate circ
Story around the ship The Windrush, told through the eyes of two Jamaicans and a British couple and in two distinct times (1948 and "before").

Hortense, the main narrator to begin with, is interesting but unsympathetic (very snobbish and judges people by how dark their skin is).

Interesting glimpse into the different ways black people were viewed and treated by US forces, British forces and various British civilians, which is different again from Bernard's views of India and its inhabitants.

[4.5] Middlebrow fiction as it should be done: entertaining, readable but not without substance; a book you still look forward to picking up when you're using most of your spare time for things other than reading. Levy makes this kind of writing look easy, but there must be a lot of paddling going on under the surface to make the novel glide so smoothly. No surprise that this was made into a BBC drama - it certainly has that Sunday evening TV feel: characters are entirely believeable as personal ...more
Paul Bryant
Feb 11, 2008 Paul Bryant rated it liked it
Shelves: novels
Well, it was pretty good. It has a lot of heart. Levy is a writer who sometimes teases the reader by dangling a big splodgy sentimental cliche in front of them only to swerve round it at the last moment. She's no fool. I've been looking for novels about immigrants, I read The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (which was kind of a drag) and I have Petropolis sitting on my shelf (hope that will be better). (Further suggestions welcomed). Small Island is about (two) Jamaicans coming to 1948 London ...more
Nov 14, 2007 Talia rated it it was amazing
Andrea Levy's Small Island is a book about misconceptions of identity and race during World War II era Britain. The story revolves around Jamaicans who move to England as they believe they are "British" as they feel entitled to all the Mother Country has to offer. What they realize is that not everything is as it may seem. The best feature of this book is the way Levy tries to explain "colonial politics." During the height of colonialism, European rulers instructed their subjects in Africa, Asia ...more
Jun 26, 2011 F.R. rated it really liked it
I heard Andrea Levy on ‘Desert Island Discs’ the other week (cue Paul Bryant spitting tea over his keyboard at the mention of that hated middle class institution. Although quite how a character in Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel gets off on being such a class warrior, God only knows). She was charming and amusing and it occurred to me with shame that I’d never actually read any of her work – particularly as ‘Small Island’ has been on my to-do list since publication. And now having perused the fina ...more
Richard Derus
Dec 19, 2011 Richard Derus rated it it was ok
Rating: 2.5* of five

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
What happens when young Jamaican men join the war effort for Britain against Germany? The Jamaicans are educated and consider themselves part of the British empire and children of the mother country of England. Unfortunately the people of England doesn't seem to recognize the Jamaicans; they don't know where Jamaica is and to them Jamaicans are just black people, inferior to white. Prejudice, alive and well in 1948 Britain.
In this story we follow Gilbert and Hortense, a Jamaican couple; and Ber
Jun 16, 2008 Michele rated it it was amazing
The story mainly takes place in 1948 UK. It is told from different character's perceptions. Hortense is a Jamaican teacher who aspires to become a "high class teacher in the UK." Gilbert is the Jamaican man she weds to get herself there. Queenie is a beautiful white British woman who takes in boarders when she believes that her husband has died in the war. Bernard is Queenie's bigoted husband, who joins the RAF to avoid the draft and is stationed in India where he ends up fighting...more The st ...more
Mar 24, 2010 Jill rated it liked it
I'm going to come back to this review at a later time. There were parts of this book that I found absolutely brilliant but as it neared its end, I was more than ready to move on to the next book. I need to reflect a little and figure out why.

Part of it, I suspect, is the unevenness of the narrators (there are four). The postwar Jamaican immigrants -- Hortense and Gilbert -- were beautifully conceived. Andrea Levy has much to say about emigrants settling in post World War II Britain -- the overbl
Even if the storyline was a little naive sometimes I have to give this book five starts because it was beautiful and I couldn't put it down.
Jun 16, 2009 Columbus rated it it was amazing
Amazing book that goes back and forth between Jamaica and London England in the 40's. Beautiful writing.
Sincerae Smith
Oct 07, 2011 Sincerae Smith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: english-novels
This historical novel took me a mighty long time to read, and the delay was not because Small Island was deadly boring or badly written. I liked this book, but at the same time I have mixed feelings about the characters. Maybe they were a little too "ordinary" for my tastes, OR perhaps since I focus much of my reading on works and characters set in Africa and the Middle East, maybe they were a little too Western for me.

Still despite my mixed feelings I loved this novel's optimism and humor. Thi
John Needham
Feb 03, 2013 John Needham rated it it was amazing
I first encountered Small Island three years ago as a television drama done by the BBC. Its title music was ‘Over the Rainbow’ rendered in jaunty calypso style. Very apt, as it encapsulated protagonist Hortense’s rosy dream of life in the Mother Country. It was no Downton-style romanticisation of the past though. This was harsh cruel post-WW2 reality. It moved me deeply, and partly inspired my own literary effort on a similar subject. So reading Andrea Levy’s fine book now, I had some foreknowle ...more
Aug 13, 2010 Mae rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought "Small Island" would be good since it won not only the Orange Prize (Britain's literary contest for women writers) but something called "The Orange Prize for Fiction: Best of the Best." Not to mention the Commonwealth Writers' prize and a bunch of other awards. And I was right - I devoured this book. Levy's amazing storytelling sucks you in from the beginning and makes you care about the characters, Jamaican immigrants to "the Mother Country" of England right after World War II, and a ...more
Around the world = Jamaica.

Levy weaves together the stories of four characters, each a part of a forgotten story of post-war Britain and the Commonwealth. Hortense, a product of a colonial upbringing where her light skin and education set her above other Jamaicans; Gilbert, a former RAF serviceman returned to England on the Empire Windrush; Queenie, surviving by any means possible on the home front, and then as a woman on her own in post-war London; and Bernard, ignorant and narrow-minded, fight
Sep 05, 2007 Ina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Told in alternating narratives by four persons in both 1948 London and the time ‘before’, this is a story of race, colonialism, imperialism, sexuality and war. The story is about Hortense and her husband Gilbert from Jamaica who move to London and about Queenie Bligh and her husband Bernard, a white couple in London. Bernard goes off to war so Queenie takes in boarders, mostly black, including Gilbert. Gilbert, a Jamaican who joined the RAF to defend the mother country during WWII brings over hi ...more
Jan 07, 2016 Makenzie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a fascinating story - I haven't read anything before about the Jamaican immigration to Britain following WWII, and this book was both heartbreaking and almost comical in its story. My heart broke for Gilbert many times in reading about the way he was treated, especially since he was in the RAF and fought for the country. Hortense arriving in the U.K. brought a different light to the story: one that was unique, as she is expecting such a grand and proper country but arrives in one that i ...more
Dec 27, 2011 Babydoll rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

England. 1948. The atmosphere is one of dilapidation as the country recovers from the effects of World War II. Many buildings and establishments have been destroyed and provisions have suffered as goods are barely rationed to the community. Multitudes of soldiers are also returning home to a devastated country, as well as a poor economy. However, to the residents of the Caribbean Islands, England is look upon as a land of promise and prosperity. Small Island is author Andrea Levy’s critically ac
This marvellous book that has sat in the to-read for far too long (almost 10 years, it’s a big to-read pile). Its unpacking of the post-war experience and the lives of West Indies migrants balances both the subtleties of change and dislocation, of expectation and disappointment, and the blatant confrontations with Britain’s presumptions of its standing (and Briton’s presumptions of theirs). The characters are well drawn, thoroughly plausible and engaging. Levy’s presentation of the story through ...more
Book Concierge
Set against the backdrop of World War 2 and its immediate aftermath, this is a story with universal appeal. Two couples – the Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph and the British Queenie and Bernard Bligh – find their way in circumstances neither ever considered. They share a desire to better themselves, but fail to recognize their common goals and instead focus on their differences. Queenie grabbed at a chance to leave her life on a farm and hastily married a boring banker, but her husband nev ...more
Jun 11, 2014 Lynne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sometimes you come across a book that makes you uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because it depicts our world the way it was ... the way is still is ... and you wish it wasn't the case.

That's how I feel about Small Island.

Hortense's story was probably the weakest of the four stories; or maybe I just hadn't gotten into the groove of the writing yet.

That said, I certainly was drawn into Gilbert and Queenie's stories (Bernard's too - but the other two were the stronger of the four in my opinion). I l
Beatriz Sousa
Gostei imenso da história e das personagens, se bem que havia partes em que uma pessoa só deseja dar uma estalada e dizer «Tem mas é juízo» ao Bernard.
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In 1948 Andrea Levy's father sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush ship and her mother joined him soon after. Andrea was born in London in 1956, growing up black in what was still a very white England. This experience has given her an complex perspective on the country of her birth.

Andrea Levy did not begin writing until she was in her mid-thirties. At that time there was little wr
More about Andrea Levy...

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“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.” 48 likes
“He looked so pained that I dreamed of taking his hands and making him dance” 8 likes
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