Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Small Island

Small Island tells the tale of two couples, one English, one Jamaican, whose lives interweave in surprising ways during and in the years following WWII. Queenie and Bernard Bligh are Londoners; Queenie is left behind when Bernard leaves to fight in India. Gilbert and Hortense Joseph are Jamaican. Gilbert comes to England to fight with the RAF, and in Gilbert prim and proper Hortense sees a ticket to the life in England of which she's dreamed. Fate first brings the two couples together, but this chance meeting cements their lives forever. Levy's novel switches among its four main characters in a series of chapters that span three continents. We hear from Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert, and Hortense. All of the characters find themselves dealing with the effects of war: Bernard and Gilbert as soldiers, Queenie in the midst of the London bombings and possible widowhood when Bernard disappears. For Hortense wartime cements her desire to create an English life and identity. But war also brings significant lessons on racism, empire, and what it means to live on a "small island," whether British or Jamaican. Levy does a good job portraying the horrors and deprivations of war. She moves easily among four very different characters, in different places. This is an accomplished saga of two families and their wartime experiences.
Andrea Levy, Small Island (Picador, 2004) ISBN: 0755325656
Orange Prize, 2004

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