After Teresa read and loved Andrea Levy’s Small Island a year ago, I knew I wanted to read it too. But it took her putting it on my book swap list to push me to get to it (isn’t that always the way?) I won’t go through the plot, or the explanation of the wonderful mix of four voices — Hortense and Gilbert from Jamaica, and Queenie and Bernard from England — that Levy does so well: Teresa’s great review does that, and you can click over and read it first. I’ll just share a few thoughts on the book, to fill out the edges.
One of the dominant themes in this book is of mothers and children. Hortense has been sent to relatives in order to be brought up properly and educated, and she has only a few memories of her own mother. Her rigid notions of class, race, and skin color derive in part from the sense that she has never been quite proper enough. In a larger sense, Gilbert phrases the Jamaican experience in England in terms of motherhood, as well.
Let me ask you to imagine this. Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. ‘Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman — refined, mannerly, and cultured.’ Your daddy tells you, ‘Mother thinks of you as her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar.’
Of course Gilbert is talking about the mother country. But, he says, he has one question: if he knows Mother so well, why doesn’t Mother know him? Bernard, too, has an image of his mother to contend with, and it’s his inability to displace thoughts of her that causes some of his racist behavior. This tangled set of mother-child relationships culminates in the final scene of the book, which otherwise would seem over the top. With all that has preceded it, it seems almost necessary.
Of course, most of the book is about exile, and the way communities treat strangers, and the way class and race and gender intersect. The fact that it takes place during wartime just adds local color, as it were. Levy deals with these heavy subjects so deftly! I’m not one to shy away from heavy or depressing books, and indeed this one deals with serious subjects, but the voices (all so distinct from each other, and woven so well together) made the whole novel lively and clear. Despite intolerance, anger, willful blindness, and a very difficult wedding night, there wasn’t a villain to be found, because Andrea Levy makes all her characters so profoundly human. There’s always another side to things; always another way to communicate, or at least to try.
The title, Small Island, is ingenious. To Gilbert, the smaller islands around Jamaica are the “small islands,” until he leaves Jamaica, and sees Britain. But Britain itself is a small island. And until we reach out to others and to new relationships and new experiences, we each live on our own small island, in literal isolation. This was a lovely novel, and I am so pleased to have Andrea Levy on my list of authors to look forward to.