Small Island is a story of four people, two men and two women, a couple each from two islands; Britain and Jamaica and how they meet and interact in 1948 on the dingy streets of London.
It is told through the voices of Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican and former RAF officer now working for the postal service trying to make his way, Hortense, his wife, a fellow Jamaican, Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman and her English husband, Bernard.
Queenie, who has a mentally ill father-in-law, takes in tenants to make ends meet when her husband Bernard does not return from the war in India. Most are black immigrants from the Caribbean, desperate men and women who are willing to pay high prices for small rooms, and Queenie gradually befriends them on a personal level.
Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican who participated in the Battle of Britain, is one of Queenie’s tenants, giving up his dream of studying law and working instead as a truck driver, the only job available to him.
Six months later, his “golden-skinned” bride Hortense arrives at Gilbert’s small room with her heavy trunk, ready to show London her superior “British” manners and hoping to work as a teacher. When Queenie’s husband, Bernard, unexpectedly moves back home, life at Nevern Street changes forever.
Small Island is also a story about small disappointments. Hortense comes to London with a teaching diploma and a good command of English complete with an English accent that back at home in Jamaica marked her out as one of the English ones.
But in London she is surprised that the real English cannot understand her English and that the English have a poor sense of dressing unlike that in the English books she has read all her life.
Hortense comes to England because of Gilbert, a man she doesn’t love but who was her means of getting to England, a place she had always imagined as “my destiny.”
The reality is one filthy rented room in Queenie’s decaying house in Earls Court and the realization that, in spite of her Jamaican teaching diploma, she isn’t going to be allowed anywhere near an English classroom.
She is told that this is because her qualification isn’t valid, but she knows that it is because she is black.
During the war, Gilbert, as a member of the West Indian RAF volunteers, had been stationed in England. After the war he realizes that as a black civilian, he finds that all that is on offer are the worst, lowest-paid jobs, the meanest lodgings and the disdain of his Jamaican wife.
Queenie, like Hortense, married out of a need to escape, in her case from her family’s farm and slaughterhouse in the Midlands.
In her teens, she was rescued from the blood and guts and homemade pork pies by a soft-hearted aunt, who cared for her indulgently in London. But when her aunt died, she was faced with having to return to the cold comfort of her birthplace.
Instead, she married Bernard, a bank clerk of dismally unattractive personal habits. She was not exactly heartbroken when Bernard joined the forces.
Levy is a master storyteller but she never preaches. There’s a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of the content.
She has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. Her characters are believable, the snobby Hortense, the progressive Queenie, the striving-to-always-do-better Gilbert, and the stubborn-but-weak Bernard -- and so very human.
Small Island is if full of wonderful moments and memorable images; it is also incredibly well researched, though it never feels burdened by this fact, instead in one quote she summarizes it “It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British Empire would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was threat.
But, tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any sergeant who would have been able to find that dear island?”
Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. It has also been adapted into a television drama for the BBC.