Small Island by Andrea Levy

I mentioned in my review of The Long Song that the novel had motivated me to read more of Levy’s writing, probably starting with her most well-known novel: Small Island. If you were following some of the comments on my review or on areaderofliterature’s review of Fruit of the Lemon, you might have picked up on the discussion we were having about how different The Long Song appeared to be from her earlier novels and the way in which she seemed to have matured as a writer. Having now read Small Island, written before The Long Song, I will add to that discussion that I think Levy matured as a writer even from Small Island to The Long Song; I enjoyed Small Island, but The Long Song is definitely a stronger all-round novel.

Small Island follows four protagonists: Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie, and Bernard, as they adjust to life in post-second world war London. Hortense and Gilbert have moved from Jamaica to make a new life for themselves in Britain but find that it is not at all as they expect… and all the locals think Jamaica is in Africa. Meanwhile their landlady, Queenie, is facing the disapproval of her neighbours as she lets in Jamaican lodgers in the absence of her husband, Bernard. The narrative moves back and forth in time as the four narrators remember the choices and circumstances that has led them to this particular time and place in the lives.

One of the strengths of the novel is its characters. None of them are particularly likable, and all make some poor decisions, but there is something about each one which keeps the reader engaged throughout the novel. Gilbert and Hortense’s struggles as Jamaicans living in London were the parts of the novel which I was most interested in and I thought Levy did a good job of exploring the racial tension of the time very much through her characters. This was definitely the strongest aspect of the novel, particularly since racism in the time surrounding the Second World War is not a topic discussed or studied much; there is a huge emphasis on studying this period of history at school in the UK and yet I can’t remember ever having studied the racial tensions of the time.

If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning, you might remember that I have opinions about flashbacks. Obviously, Small Island is a novel that relies heavily on flashbacks (it comprises roughly half the novel) and I’m not convinced that they were used in the most effective way. My main issue was the lack of structure to the differing points of views: for the majority of the novel the present-day narrative shifted almost every chapter between the Gilbert, Hortense, and Queenie; however, each flashback would be made up of several chapters told exclusively from the point of view of one character. Although the perspective was clearly identified at the beginning of each chapter, it was confusing as a reader, particularly since sometimes the flashbacks would not be from the point of view of the character narrating the previous chapter. The content of the flashbacks was interesting, and added a lot to the story, but the structure pulled me out of the narrative too much for me to think that it was an effective device.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Small Island and I can definitely see why it became so popular when it was released. The narrative and the characters are compelling and it is well-written. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, I do think that The Long Song is a stronger novel, particularly in terms of character and writing style; I would recommend The Long Song as a better place to start with Andrea Levy’s writing.

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