Vicky's Reviews > Small Island

Small Island by Andrea Levy
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Sep 18, 14

bookshelves: around-the-world, location-caribbean, war, on-an-island
Read from December 26, 2011 to January 02, 2012

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, fighting on in the forgotten war in Burma and in the Indian Mutiny.

The characters are well-developed, and Levy is not afraid to make her creations unlike-able. Bernard, in particular, is unpleasant, and unpalatable to reader as a depiction of the sly, subtle racism espoused by individuals in Britain at the time (unlike the shockingly depicted, state-endorsed, overt racism of Jim Crow USA). Hortense, a narrow-minded snob, is a foil to show the class-system that pervades Britain and the Empire, and the prejudices she holds are near as divisive as those of Bernard. However, both are presented with enough of their back-story to give the reader an understanding of how their attitudes and bigotries are developed.

The Small Island of the title, is both Jamaica, too small for Gilbert and his comrades after spending the war overseas, and Britain, once the centre of the Empire and 'mother country', where the ideals of both the white population and black immigrants are crushed through their experiences. Small Island doesn't give its characters a happy ending, but instead offers them hope.

Around the world = Jamaica.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Mikki (new) - added it

Mikki "The characters are well-developed, and Levy is not afraid to make her creations unlike-able."

I like that in a story. Great review, Vicky, I'm adding this as an alternative to my choice for Jamaica.


Jenny (Reading Envy) "The characters are well-developed, and Levy is not afraid to make her creations unlike-able."

I'm afraid to say that I gave it 50 pages last year when it was longlisted for an award, and they were so unlikeable that I couldn't push myself past it. Your review makes me consider I may have been too hasty.


Vicky I did like the book, but not initially. The chapters alternate between narrators, and it wasn't until I was reading Queenie's story that I really started to enjoy the story and the writing. That allowed me to have the patience to read Bernard's story, which isn't introduced until very late in the book. I disliked Hortense from the start, but her character made it always seem inevitable that she would have a "fall" then be "redeemed", if you see what I mean.


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