• Isabelle Osborne

Reviewing Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'

Small Island is a historical novel exploring themes of racial identity, education, isolation and relationships warped by love, war and prejudice, as well as the psychological and physical casualties of conflict.

As Britain became in desperate need of economic and social recovery, the country accessed the necessary manual labour from its colonies, letting go of its imperial power. This sparked the beginning of mass immigration. Transitioning between the lives of Jamaican and British characters as they come into contact with one another for the first time, Levy demonstrates how xenophobia infiltrated British society as the immigrant characters are faced with alienation, hatred and discrimination from their white ‘superiors’ on a vocational, societal and personal level.

Published in 2004, Levy's novel offers an intertwining of the lives of her four protagonists - Queen, Hortense, Bernard and Gilbert. Fashioning the novel using a dual time setting, Levy introduces Hortense and Gilbert, characters of Jamaican heritage, and Queenie and Bernard, a stereotypical English couple, all of which have suffered the effects of the Second World War.

Spanning from just after WW1 to 1948, the character’s paths interlock when Gilbert meets Queenie after joining the RAF to fight with the allies. Their relationship unfolds when Gilbert brings his wife to England and they become tenants of Queenie’s house during the time when Queenie’s husband, Bernard, is away fighting in India, opening up a host of racial and societal issues and debates within the novel.

Levy weaves in the battle between a romanticized vision and a harsh reality in a setting of great national change and societal reform though the character of Queenie. She becomes a representation one of the few white Londoners willing to take in Jamaican war veterans, to which Gilbert soon discovers; although accepted as a British soldier during the war, the prejudice of his fellow servicemen once the uniform is off returns.

The ideological conflicts and racial differences of the characters ironically leads to their bonding, and their story ends with the parting of the two couples after a reunion, a confession and a new life, which becomes symbolic of racial integration and equality.

Gilbert and Hortense's moving into Queenie's house is symbolic of how immigrants infiltrated the life of colonial oppressor. Placing the most important event of the novel (which I promise I won't spoil) in the home of Queenie and Bernard demonstrates how the country was changing, socially and culturally, as the immigrants began to counter the mono-cultural perception of British citizens.

I fell in love with this novel in light of its wit, emotion and beauty. The uniting of the characters from differing races and cultures opened my eyes to the devastating racism of the 20th century as immigration to England began. Queenie's warmth, Hortense's innocence, Gilbert's humour and Bernard's ignorance spark laughter and sadness in the reader as we witness the effect of the Second World War as well as the appalling ideology of British society that they were somehow superior to immigrants.

I was lucky enough to see a dramatic adaptation of the novel at The National Theatre in London, whereby the actors and actresses brought Levy's novel to life. I loved the portrayal of Bernard's father, Albert, whose relationship with Queenie is crippled by his suffering of PTSD. Despite his silence, he highlights how familial unity is paramount in desperate times and how innocent people fell victim to racist ideology.

This novel is the masterpiece that was behind my desire to become a Literature student, driving my passion to study literature that tackles historic events on a personal level and educates on the devastating treatment of marginalised groups. I adore the sense of hope in the novel - as the barriers between black and white begin to dissolve, Levy presents us with an optimistic vision of Britain transitioning from a society of prejudice and discrimination to multiculturalism and equality.

Levy has given me my favourite novel of all time, and I urge you to immerse yourself in its beauty and integrity.

Words are all we have.

 - Samuel Beckett

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World of Words 

By Isabelle Osborne