By Andrea Levy
Last Christmas my writing group had a fabulous social gathering. As part of the literature theme of the evening (although I think wine was the main focus) we, the guests, had been asked to bring a book we wanted to share with others. However, I’d somehow missed the email and I had no book to impose on my companions. Luckily for me the group was kind and they handed me a spare paperback called Small Island. On first glance I thought it was a tad too large for my bag, but I said thanks and gratefully took it home.
After reading the YA fiction trilogy Matched I came to Small Island and I’m so glad I did. On the books first opening I was intrigued to find a postcard with a hilly landscape sketch on it. On its reverse was a written explanation as to why this anonymous person had provided this book. Here is a sample:
‘I do hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. It was important to me in helping me to understand more about the England I grew up in – I was born in 1940. We lived in rural Somerset, so I had very little idea about the larger patterns of social change in the UK.’
Small Island is set during WW2 and after in its period of recovery. We are taken into the heads and lives of the four main characters: (English) Queenie and Bernard and (Jamaican) Hortense and Gilbert.
We explore societal and personal relationships. We see how Hortense and Gilbert, who have longed to make a life in England as a lawyer and a teacher, encounter racism and prejudice. We observe the change in society as the war finishes and cultures and races mix. I found it shocking and fascinating at the open levels of racist abuse and the more subtle, underlying, accepted racism and perceived superiority at being white and British. Although, one hears of how people were treated it’s quite difficult comprehend. I think this book goes a little way to assisting the understanding of how black people, specifically Jamaicans, who were fighting for the Britain, were treated.
Andrea Levy writes so beautifully and easily, capturing the heart of personal and intimate moments through the most banal of daily tasks. On Bernard’s return from war we see both his and his wife’s struggle at getting back to ‘normality’.
‘“Took me a while to find the teapot,’ he told me. ‘Not where it usually is.”’ p435
Levy doesn’t skip the detail of daily lives and I think it’s this that draws us in and provides us with the essence of each character. We see how they perform on a day-to-day basis both in solitary mode and in company; we examine how they live and how they respond.
Each moment and event is perfectly crafted with her insightful words. During war she evokes in our minds the struggle and bizarreness that the men found themselves in with beautiful simplicity.
‘The relief had the whole trench sighing as one man.’ P346
‘Chap looked about eighty. We all did, with our pantomime aging of dust.’ P347
With Levy’s excellent prose I was taken on a journey of discovery where I held tight to the note on the postcard. It felt like a treasure that someone else had experienced something great in this book and now I was too. I kept this unidentified message inside the book during reading. It felt personal. I hope it remains with the book when I pass it on as it definitely added an unexpected dimension to my reading experience.
Read this book and if you’re lucky you may come across this magical copy.