Small Island tells the story of four people whose lives intersect in London following the end of the Second World War. Those people are Queenie and her husband Bernard, white Londoners, she working class and he middle class, and Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaicans who’ve come to London after Gilbert’s time in the RAF. The novel is narrated from the points of view of each of the four characters and both from the ‘now’ of 1948 and the past that each character has lived through.
The book begins with a prologue in which Levy makes clear the key theme of the novel. Queenie says, ‘I thought I’d been to Africa’. She tells her school class this until her teacher points out she’s been to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. From the first line of the novel, Levy highlights the British ignorance of Africa and its people. At the exhibition, Africa’s represented by a jungle village and a woman and a man.
A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with a sooty cork. The droplets of sweat on his forehead glistened and shone like jewels. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn sheep. His nose squasher flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me.
‘Would you like to kiss him?’ Graham said. He nudged me, teasing, and pushed me forward – closer to this black man.
…The inside of his mouth was pink and his face was coming closer and closer to mine. He could have swallowed me up this big nigger man. But instead he said, in clear English, ‘Perhaps we could shake hands instead?’
The first chapter has Hortense arriving at a house in London, straight from the docks where Gilbert’s forgotten to meet her. The house belongs to Queenie who’s taken in lodgers – most of them black, much to the vexation of her neighbours – since the war ended and her husband failed to return. The first chapter sets up Hortense’s expectations and shows how quickly they are disabused. The dialogue between Hortense and Queenie on the doorstep is particularly well done, showing a number of misunderstandings between the women based on accent and cultural knowledge.
The sections set in the present day – which are spaced throughout the novel, between the ‘before’ stories of each of the main characters – deal with relationships, both those between husband and wife and those between white and black people during this period. Both are often fractious with the parties lacking understanding of each other. Queenie and Bernard have dark secrets they know how to share with each other. Hortense doesn’t know how Gilbert can live as he does, Gilbert doesn’t know why he married her and why the UK’s so hostile after he played his part in the war effort.
For the teeth and glasses.
That was the reason so many coloured people were coming to this country, according to my next-door neighbour Mr Todd.
‘That National Health Service – it’s pulling them in, Mrs Bligh. Giving things away at our expense will keep them coming,’ he said. He might have a point except, according to him, they were all cross-eyed and goofy before they got here.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes,’ he assured me. ‘But now, of course, they’ve got spectacles and perfect grins.’
What’s particularly impressive about Small Island is that Levy allows each character to tell their story – and their side of the present day story – in their own voice. Each is distinct and convincing. Each story is equally interesting too. I sometimes wondered whether the structure of the novel, where each character tells their back-story in full (sometimes stretching to ninety pages), could have been divided into smaller sections. However, I can see how Levy uses each story to contribute to further understanding of the characters and how their stories come together in a surprising way.
Small Island is a good novel, exploring a country in the midst of great change, attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the war. Levy does this largely through the private – the individual stories – but very much shows how the private is political. It’s a perfect book for a long, indulgent read that will satisfy you in terms of character and plot but also lead you to consider current attitudes to race. I found it particularly poignant as the general election draws closer in the UK and anti-immigrant rhetoric is spouted from several parties. Like Levy, I’ll give Hortense and Gilbert the last words:
Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. ‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white.’