Small Island

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.

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12 Responses to Small Island

  1. Alex says:

    I tried so hard to like this book. We read it in one of my book groups when it first came out and everyone except me was really enthusiastic. I simply couldn’t respond to any of the characters. I’m going to have to go back and re-read it at some point. I must have been in a terrible mood.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I know that place. The characters are not all very sympathetic, but I found them all marvelous because they were flawed but redeemable, and the writing swept me along.

  2. I loved this, but couldn’t get along with The Long Song.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t seen any other reviews of that yet. I’m going to have to try it, though, since I liked this so well.

  3. Teresa says:

    I’m really glad that you liked this so much! I was especially impressed with the way Levy made each voice so distinct, and lively is a good word to describe the style. It’s serious without being gloomy. I like your reading of the ending, which I did find over the top. Perhaps just viewed through a plot-oriented lens, it is too much, but it makes sufficient thematic sense to work. I’ll have to think about that.

    • Jenny says:

      Plot-wise, I do think you have to roll your eyes a little! And I didn’t find everyone’s behavior all that realistic, either. But thematically, it does fit in. Thank you for making me read this! It was a pleasure.

  4. I’m glad you love this book, it’s one of my favourites! :)

  5. aartichapati says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one as much as Teresa wanted you to! I haven’t read it but I watched the TV special on PBS and that made me WANT to read it. Eventually, I will get there :-)

    • Jenny says:

      I missed that special. That would have been fun! Was it well done, in your opinion? I like the blend of the four voices so well that I’d be a little suspicious of something that didn’t accomplish that.

      • aartichapati says:

        Hmm, I thought it was well done, but I had never read the book, so had no expectations. There were definitely multiple characters with different personalities, but not the striking differences in POV you can get in a book.

      • Teresa says:

        I haven’t seen the Masterpiece Classic production, but I heard good things about it, so I intend to at some point. (Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard!) I can’t imagine that a film version could get across the four voices, but as long as the performances were good and felt as layered as the characters in the book did, I’d be satisfied.

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