Sunday 28 November 2010

Small Island by Andrea Levy

I chose this book about immigration to post-war Britain because I had heard only good things about it from others.  It has won both the Whitbread Book of the Year prize and the Best of the Best of the Orange Prize.  The Orange Prize has always been a source of good books for me, and this one was no different.

Synopsis: The story is told through four central characters whose lives intertwine.  Queenie is a British housewife liberated by the war, Bernard (her husband) is a British soldier out of his comfort zone keeping the peace in an India struggling for independence, Gilbert is a Jamaican recruit trying to make it in Britain and Hortense, his new wife, is struggling to reconcile the wonderful Britain she dreamed of with the reality.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

This was such a clever and well written book.  It took me just over a week to read, but had I had the time, I could have devoured it within a day.  The narrative technique of telling the story from four different points of view works very well and each character retains their distinctive voice and identity. I particularly enjoyed the way Levy wrote the prejudice of the British characters - they didn't know they were being prejudiced, but Levy let the reader read between the lines of the characters thoughts and pick it up for themselves.  It was all very subtle, and not too far from the kinds of things people still say today.  In fact the great strength of the book was it's perceptiveness.

Levy also wrote well about the experience of the Jamaican characters, Gilbert and Hortense.  Having been brought up in the British empire and on tales of how wonderful the "mother country" is, as a reader you really felt for them when they actually got to Britain and were severly disappointed.  Hortense with her BBC public-school accent couldn't understand the East Londoners around her.  Gilbert struggled to understand why he couldn't get a job easily, having fought for Britain during the war.  Both gradually became bowed down by their new experiences and were in danger of being sucked under.

I didn't see the twist coming at the end, although had I been aware that there was going to be a twist, I might have.  I thought it tied together all of the stories nicely and the ending was satisfying.

Overall, even though this book has a 'historical' theme it definitely still feels relevant today, especially where I live.  Highly recommended.  I'll be hunting out some more Andrea Levy soon.


  1. Nice review! I have a copy of this from univ & haven't finished it. I ought to pick this up again.

  2. @Teacher/Learner
    Thank you. Did you enjoy what you have already read? If so, you should definitely finish as there's a twist coming at the end.

  3. I love Andrea Levy's books though I haven't read this one. I liked her Fruit of the Lemon, which is again set in Jamaica. The review is on the blog. The way she writes is really delightful. Nice review!

  4. I keep meaning to get this as I find the immigrant experience coming into the UK quite interesting.

  5. @Birdy - Thanks, and I'll have to check out Fruit of the Lemon. I think I have a copy of Every Light in the House Burnin' somewhere too ...

    @Jessica - definitely check it out! If you're already interested in the topic, I can't recommend it enough.

  6. I love those intertwining story lines, they are trick though and very hard to write correctly.

    Great review, I twitted it to my following.

  7. @Man of la Books

    Agree, they can be really hard to pull off. Glad you enjoyed the review, and thanks for the support :)

  8. Although I haven't read any of Levy's books as yet, I watched this TV mini-series (actors on book cover) and it was brilliant - I was glued to the screen and hanging on every word!

  9. I am so happy to have come upon this book accidentally, and I am so pleased that there are more novels by Andrea Levy to read. Let's hope that she has a long life and writes many more beautiful books.

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