Small Island

( 49 )

Overview

Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction

A Picador Original Trade Paperback

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later ...

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Overview

Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction

A Picador Original Trade Paperback

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.

Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers—-in short, an encapsulation of that most American of experiences: the immigrant's life.

Born in 1956 to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is the author of three previous novels and has received a British Arts Council Writers Award in addition to the Orange Prize and Whitbread distinctions. She lives and works in London.

Winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year Award

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Small Island, winner of both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a tour de force. Spirited and improbably funny, it offers the account of two very ordinary couples in postwar London. Hortense arrives from Jamaica in 1948 to make a home with her new husband, Gilbert. But in a place where the buildings are taller, the weather colder, and the sky more gray than anything she's experienced, she begins to question the wisdom of her decision. It is Gilbert, her new husband and a man she barely knows, who reminds her why it is she has come so far. A war veteran struggling to make a home in the city, Gilbert questions his own resolve when he finds not a hero's welcome but prejudice, contempt, and nearly insurmountable odds. But he is befriended by Queenie, the couple's white landlady, whose own life is upended when her husband Bernard, long thought dead, returns from the war with a head full of memories and an aching heart.

This quartet of voices relates a story of the immigrant experience at once deeply intimate and richly expansive. With an incomparable eye for detail and nuance, an uncanny ear for the oddities lurking in language, and a genuine affection for the weaknesses of her all-too-human characters, Levy has fashioned a wholly engrossing sprawl of a novel that never fails to delight and entertain. (Summer 2005 Selection)
From the Publisher
"It's all here: exceptional dialogue, clever narrative, and a rich story that tells us something new about our shared history on a planet that is increasingly small and yet will always be inhabited by individuals possessed, at our best, by singular consciousness and desire."—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

 

"There is a great skill in the way she presents characters and dialogue; she has powers of observation and an ear for language that make her books a pleasure to read."—Times Literary Supplement (UK)

 

"Andrea Levy gives us a new, urgent take on our past."—Vogue

 

"A perfectly crafted tale of crossed lives and oceans . . . Happily, the hype is warranted—Small Island is a triumph."—San Francisco Chronicle

 

"Andrea Levy's beautifully wrought novel is a window into 1948 England. . . . A bristling, funny, angry tale of love and sacrifice."—Entertainment Weekly

 

"Levy tells a good story, and she tells it well—using narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew."—The Washington Post

 

"Familiar cultural observations in closely observed and surprising lives . . . Levy's writing deftly illuminates the complex and contradictory motives behind each character's behavior."—The New Yorker

Louise Bernard
One particularly successful aspect of the novel is Levy's ability to reflect upon this larger picture while paying close attention to the intricacies of her characters' quotidian experiences with a wry and penetrating humor.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
After winning the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, Levy's captivating fourth novel sweeps into a U.S. edition with much-deserved literary fanfare. Set mainly in the British Empire of 1948, this story of emigration, loss and love follows four characters two Jamaicans and two Britons as they struggle to find peace in postwar England. After serving in the RAF, Jamaican Gilbert Joseph finds life in his native country has become too small for him. But in order to return to England, he must marry Hortense Roberts she's got enough money for his passage and then set up house for them in London. The pair move in with Queenie Bligh, whose husband, Bernard, hasn't returned from his wartime post in India. But when does Bernard turn up, he is not pleased to find black immigrants living in his house. This deceptively simple plot poises the characters over a yawning abyss of colonialism, racism, war and the everyday pain that people inflict on one another. Levy allows readers to see events from each of the four character's' point of view, lightly demonstrating both the subjectivity of truth and the rationalizing lies that people tell themselves when they are doing wrong. None of the characters is perfectly sympathetic, but all are achingly human. When Gilbert realizes that his pride in the British Empire is not reciprocated, he wonders, "How come England did not know me?" His question haunts the story as it moves back and forth in time and space to show how the people of two small islands become inextricably bound together. Agent, David Grossman. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This novel examines class, race, and prejudice in London in 1948, when a new multiracial England began to form. Through four principal narrators comprising two married couples, the author brings to life the dreams and fears of a generation. Gilbert, a Jamaican newlywed who served in the RAF during World War II, hopes for a prosperous future in London, though his experience of racial discrimination tells him this won't be achieved easily. His young wife, Hortense, is more naive. Arriving from the colonies prepared to take up a teaching career, she is soon in despair over rude rejections and her struggle to make herself understood, literally and figuratively, by white working-class neighbors who don't seem to comprehend the pristine English she learned on her home island. Even the small comforts provided by their affable landlady are soured when Queenie's long-missing husband returns and is less than pleased to meet the black boarders. As these mismatched pairs relate their sides of the story, the author's linguistic skill pitches their voices perfectly within time and place. Though none of the characters is very likable, all are nuanced personalities who make the book intriguing and believable throughout, even a final plot twist involving a coincidence of Dickensian proportions. Affecting, funny, and sad, this is a masterful depiction of a society on the verge of major changes.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the 2004 Orange Prize-the first writer to win both for the same novel-draws on her Jamaican background in the alluring story of two couples, one Jamaican and one English, whose paths cross in WWII-era England. The Jamaican Gilbert Joseph volunteers for the Royal Air Force, but life in England isn't what he expected, with its tasteless boiled food and insidious racism. After the war, he returns to Jamaica but still hopes to study law in England, and when Hortense, a Jamaican teacher, offers him the money to travel to England if he'll marry her, he agrees-only to discover, back in England, that he cannot study law and the best job he can find is as a postal-truck driver. When Hortense joins him six months later, she is not only shocked by his threadbare fifth-floor room but offended by the prejudice she encounters and discouraged when her Jamaican teacher's credential is rejected. In the story of the adjustments these bright, well-educated and dignified immigrants must make, Gilbert's earthiness offers a delicious counterpoint to Hortense's prideful ambition. Other voices include that of the Josephs' white landlady, Queenie Bligh, the daughter of a provincial butcher, and of her husband Bernard, an older bank clerk in India with the RAF. Queenie meets Gilbert during the war, when he once brings her wandering father-in-law back to her home. The father-in-law, shell-shocked in WWI, is killed by an MP during a brawl at the movies caused when Gilbert refuses to follow the "rules" that segregate the theater racially. When her husband Bernard doesn't come home to their big London house after the war, Queenie takes in lodgers, includingGilbert and Hortense. The growing tensions among the three-and the disruption when Bernard returns at last-bring a spellbinding story to a surprising, heart-rending climax. An enthralling tour de force that animates a chapter in the history of empire. This is Levy's fourth novel, but first U.S. publication.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312429522
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/30/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 270,297
  • Product dimensions: 11.30 (w) x 2.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in 1956 to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is the author of three previous novels and has received a British Arts Council Writers Award in addition to the Orange Prize and Whitbread distinctions. She lives and works in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Small Island

1948

One

Hortense

 

It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: ‘Oh, Hortense, when I am older …’ all her dreaming began with ‘when I am older’ ‘ … when I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England.’ This is when her voice became high-class and her nose point into the air – well, as far as her round flat nose could – and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s eye. ‘Hortense, in England I will have a big house with a bell at the front door and I will ring the bell.’ And she made the sound, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. ‘I will ring the bell in this house when I am in England. That is what will happen to me when I am older.’

 

I said nothing at the time. I just nodded and said, ‘You surely will, Celia Langley, you surely will.’ I did not dare to dream that it would one day be I who would go to England. It would one day be I who would sail on a ship as big as a world and feel the sun’s heat on my face gradually change from roasting to caressing. But there was I! Standing at the door of a house in London and ringing the bell. Pushing my finger to hear the ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. Oh, Celia Langley, where were you then with your big ideas and your nose in the air? Could you see me? Could you see me there in London? Hortense Roberts married with a gold ring and a wedding dress in a trunk. Mrs Joseph. Mrs Gilbert Joseph. What you think of that, Celia Langley? There was I in England ringing the doorbell on one of the tallest houses I had ever seen.

 

But when I pressed this doorbell I did not hear a ring. No ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. I pressed once more in case the bell was not operational. The house, I could see, was shabby. Mark you, shabby in a grand sort of a way. I was sure this house could once have been home to a doctor or a lawyer or perhaps a friend of a friend of the King. Only the house of someone high-class would have pillars at the doorway. Ornate pillars that twisted with elaborate design. The glass stained with coloured pictures as a church would have. It was true that some were missing, replaced by cardboard and strips of white tape. But who knows what devilish deeds Mr Hitler’s bombs had carried out during the war? I pushed the doorbell again when it was obvious no one was answering my call. I held my thumb against it and pressed my ear to the window. A light came on now and a woman’s voice started calling, ‘All right, all right, I’m coming! Give us a minute.’

 

I stepped back down two steps avoiding a small lump of dog’s business that rested in some litter and leaves. I straightened my coat, pulling it closed where I had unfortunately lost a button. I adjusted my hat in case it had sagged in the damp air and left me looking comical. I pulled my back up straight.

 

The door was answered by an Englishwoman. A blonde-haired, pinkcheeked Englishwoman with eyes so blue they were the brightest thing in the street. She looked on my face, parted her slender lips and said, ‘Yes?’

 

‘Is this the household of Mr Gilbert Joseph?’

 

‘I beg your pardon?’

 

‘Gilbert Joseph?’ I said, a little slower.

 

‘Oh, Gilbert. Who are you?’ She pronounced Gilbert so strangely that for a moment I was anxious that I would be delivered to the wrong man.

 

‘Mr Gilbert Joseph is my husband – I am his wife.’

 

The woman’s face looked puzzled and pleased all at one time. She looked back into the house, lifting her head as she did. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Didn’t he come to meet you?’

 

‘I have not seen Gilbert,’ I told her, then went on to ask, ‘but this is perchance where he is aboding?’

 

At which this Englishwoman said, ‘What?’ She frowned and looked over my shoulder at the trunk, which was resting by the kerbside where it had been placed by the driver of the taxi vehicle. ‘Is that yours?’ she enquired.

 

‘It is.’

 

‘It’s the size of the Isle of Wight. How did you get it here?’ She laughed a little. A gentle giggle that played round her eyes and mouth.

 

I laughed too, so as not to give her the notion that I did not know what she was talking about as regards this ‘white island’. I said, ‘I came in a taxicab and the driver assured me that this was the right address. Is this the house of Gilbert Joseph?’

 

The woman stood for a little while before answering by saying, ‘Hang on here. I’ll see if he’s in his room.’ She then shut the door in my face.

 

And I wondered how could a person only five feet six inches tall (five feet seven if I was wearing my wedding-shoe heels), how could such a person get to the top of this tall house? Ropes and pulleys was all I could conceive. Ropes and pulleys to hoist me up. We had stairs in Jamaica. Even in our single-storey houses we had stairs that lifted visitors on to the veranda and another that took them into the kitchen. There were stairs at my college, up to the dormitories that housed the pupils on two separate floors. I was very familiar with stairs. But all my mind could conjure as I looked up at this tall, tall house was ropes and pulleys. It was obvious that I had been on a ship for too long.

 

In Gilbert Joseph’s last letter he had made me a promise that he would be there to meet me when my ship arrived at the dockside in England. He had composed two pages of instructions telling me how he would greet me. ‘I will be there,’ he wrote. ‘You will see me waving my hand with joy at my young bride coming at last to England. I will be jumping up and down and calling out your name with longing in my tone.’ It did occur to me that, as I had not seen Gilbert for six months, he might have forgotten my face. The only way he would be sure of recognising his bride was by looking out for a frowning woman who stared embarrassed at the jumping, waving buffoon she had married.

But it did not matter – he was not there. There was no one who would have fitted his description. The only jumping and waving that was done was by the Jamaicans arriving and leaving the ship. Women who shivered in their church best clothes – their cotton dresses with floppy bows and lace; their hats and white gloves looking gaudy against the grey of the night. Men in suits and bow-ties and smart hats. They jumped and waved. Jumped and waved at the people come to meet them.

 

Black men in dark, scruffy coats with hand-knitted scarves. Hunched over in the cold. Squinting and straining to see a bag or hair or shoes or a voice or a face that they knew. Who looked feared – their eyes opening a little too wide – as they perused the luggage that had been brought across the ocean and now had to be carried through the streets of London. Greeting excited relatives with the same words: ‘You bring some guava, some rum – you have a little yam in that bag?’

 

As my feet had set down on the soil of England an Englishwoman approached me. She was breathless. Panting and flushed. She swung me round with a force that sent one of my coat buttons speeding into the crowd with the velocity of a bullet. ‘Are you Sugar?’ she asked me. I was still trying to follow my poor button with the hope of retrieving it later as that coat had cost me a great deal of money. But this Englishwoman leaned close in to my face and demanded to know, ‘Are you Sugar?’

 

I straightened myself and told her, ‘No, I am Hortense.’

 

She tutted as if this information was in some way annoying to her. She took a long breath and said, ‘Have ?ou seen Sugar? She’s one of you. She’s coming to be my nanny and I am a little later than I thought. You must know her. Sugar. Sugar?’

 

I thought I must try saying sugar with those vowels that make the word go on for ever. Very English. Sugaaaar. And told this woman politely, ‘No I am sorry I am not acquainted with …’

 

But she shook her head and said, ‘Ohh,’ before I had a chance to open any of my vowels. This Englishwoman then dashed into a crowd where she turned another woman round so fast that this newly arrived Jamaican, finding herself an inch away from a white woman shouting, ‘Sugaaar, Sugaaar,’ into her face, suddenly let out a loud scream.

 

It was two hours I waited for Gilbert. Two hours watching people hugging up lost relations and friends. Laughing, wiping handkerchiefs over tearful eyes. Arguing over who will go where. Men lifting cases, puffing and sweating, on to their shoulders. Women fussing with hats and pulling on gloves. All walking off into this cold black night through an archway that looked like an open mouth. I looked for my button on the ground as the crowds thinned. But it would not have been possible to find anything that small in the fading light.

 

There was a white man working, pushing a trolley – sometimes empty, sometimes full. He whistled, as he passed, a tune that made his head nod. I thought, This working white man may have some notion as to how I could get to my destination. I attracted his attention by raising my hand. ‘Excuse me, sir, I am needing to get to Nevern Street. Would you perchance know where it is?’

 

This white man scratched his head and picked his left nostril before saying, ‘I can’t take you all the way on me trolley, love.’ It occurred to me that I had not made myself understood or else this working white man could not have thought me so stupid as to expect him, with only his two-wheeled cart, to take me through the streets of London. What – would I cling to his back with my legs round his waist? ‘You should get a taxi,’ he told me, when he had finished laughing at his joke.

I stared into his face and said, ‘Thank you, and could you be so kind as to point out for me the place where I might find one of these vehicles?’

 

The white man looked perplexed. ‘You what, love?’ he said, as if I had been speaking in tongues.

It took me several attempts at saying the address to the driver of the taxi vehicle before his face lit with recognition. ‘I need to be taken to number twenty-one Nevern Street in SW five. Twenty-one Nevern Street. N-e-v-e-r-n S-t-r-e-e-t.’ I put on my best accent. An accent that had taken me to the top of the class in Miss Stuart’s English pronunciation competition. My recitation of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ had earned me a merit star and the honour of ringing the school bell for one week.

But still this taxi driver did not understand me. ‘No, sorry, dear. Have you got it written down or something? On a piece of paper? Have you got it on a piece of paper?’ I showed him the letter from my husband, which was clearly marked with the address. ‘Oh, Nevern Street – twenty-one. I’ve got you now.’

 

There was a moon. Sometimes there, sometimes covered by cloud. But there was a moon that night – its light distorting and dissolving as my breath steamed upon the vehicle window. ‘This is the place you want, dear. Twenty-one Nevern Street,’ the taxi driver said. ‘Just go and ring the bell. You know about bells and knockers? You got them where you come from? Just go and ring the bell and someone’ll come.’ He left my trunk by the side of the road. ‘I’m sure someone inside will help you with this, dear. Just ring the bell.’ He mouthed the last words with the slow exaggeration I generally reserved for the teaching of small children. It occurred to me then that perhaps white men who worked were made to work because they were fools.

 

I did not see what now came through the door, it came through so fast. It could have been a large dog the way it leaped and bounded towards me. It was only when I heard, ‘Hortense,’ uttered from its mouth that I realised it was my husband. ‘Hortense. You here! You here at last, Hortense!’

I folded my arms, sat on my trunk and averted my eye. He stopped in front of me. His arms still open wide ready for me to run into. ‘Don’t Hortense me, Gilbert Joseph.’

 

His arms slowly rested to his sides as he said, ‘You no pleased to see me, Hortense?’

 

I quoted precisely from the letter. ‘“I will be at the dockside to meet you. You will see me there jumping and waving and calling your name with longing in my tone.” ’

 

‘How you find this place, Hortense?’ was all the man said.

 

‘Without your help, Gilbert Joseph, that’s how I find this place. With no help from you. Where were you? Why you no come to meet me? Why you no waving and calling my name with longing in your tone?’

 

He was breathless as he began, ‘Hortense, let me tell you. I came to the dock but there was no ship. So they tell me to come back later when the ship will arrive. So I go home and take the opportunity of fixing the place up nice for when you come …’

 

His shirt was not buttoned properly. The collar turned up at one side and down at the other. There were two stray buttons that had no holes to fit in. The shirt was only tucked into his trousers around the front, at the back it hung out like a mischievous schoolboy’s. One of his shoelaces was undone. He looked ragged. Where was the man I remembered? He was smart: his suit double-breasted, his hair parted and shiny with grease, his shoes clean, his fingernails short, his moustache neat and his nose slender. The man who stood jabbering in front of me looked dark and rough. But he was Gilbert, I could tell. I could tell by the way the fool hopped about as he pronounced his excuses.

 

‘So I was just going to go to the dock again. But then here you are. You turn up at the door. Oh, man, what a surprise for me! Hortense! You here at last!’

 

It was then I noticed that the Englishwoman who had answered the door was looking at us from the top of the steps. She called from on high, ‘Gilbert, can I shut the door now, please? It’s letting in a terrible draught.’

 

And he called to her in a casual tone, ‘Soon come.’

 

So I whispered to him, ‘Come, you want everyone in England to know our business?’

 

The Englishwoman was still looking at me when I entered the hallway. Perusing me in a fashion as if I was not there to see her stares. I nodded to her and said, ‘Thank you for all your help with finding my husband. I hope it did not inconvenience you too much.’ I was hoping that in addressing her directly she would avert her eye from me and go about her business. But she did not. She merely shrugged and continued as before. I could hear Gilbert dragging at my trunk. We both stood listening to him huffing and puffing like a broken steam train.

 

Then he ran through the door, saying, ‘Hortense, what you have in that trunk – your mother?’

As the Englishwoman was still looking at us I smiled instead of cussing and said, ‘I have everything I will need in that trunk, thank you, Gilbert.’

 

‘So you bring your mother, then,’ Gilbert said. He broke into his laugh, which I remembered. A strange snorting sound from the back of his nose, which caused his gold tooth to wink. I was still smiling when he started to rub his hands and say, ‘Well, I hope you have guava and mango and rum and—’

 

‘I hope you’re not bringing anything into the house that will smell?’ the Englishwoman interrupted.

This question erased the smile from my face. Turning to her I said, ‘I have only brought what I—’

But Gilbert caught my elbow. ‘Come, Hortense,’ he said, as if the woman had not uttered a word. ‘Come, let me show you around.’

 

I followed him up the first stairs and heard the woman call, ‘What about the trunk, Gilbert? You can’t leave it where it is.’

 

Gilbert looked over my shoulder to answer her, smiling: ‘Don’t worry, Queenie. Soon come, nah, man.’

 

I had to grab the banister to pull myself up stair after stair. There was hardly any light. Just one bulb so dull it was hard to tell whether it was giving out light or sucking it in. At every turn on the stairs there was another set of steep steps, looking like an empty bookshelf in front of me. I longed for those ropes and pulleys of my earlier mind. I was groping like a blind man at times with nothing to light the way in front of me except the sound of Gilbert still climbing ahead. ‘Hortense, nearly there,’ he called out, like Moses from on top of the mountain. I was palpitating by the time I reached the door where Gilbert stood grinning, saying: ‘Here we are.’

 

‘What a lot of stairs. Could you not find a place with fewer stairs?’

 

We went into the room. Gilbert rushed to pull a blanket over the unmade bed. Still warm I was sure. It was obvious to me he had just got out of it. I could smell gas. Gilbert waved his arms around as if showing me a lovely view. ‘This is the room,’ he said.

 

All I saw were dark brown walls. A broken chair that rested one uneven leg on the Holy Bible. A window with a torn curtain and Gilbert’s suit – the double-breasted one – hanging from a rail on the wall.

 

‘Well,’ I said, ‘show me the rest, then, Gilbert.’ The man just stared. ‘Show me the rest, nah. I am tired from the long journey.’ He scratched his head. ‘The other rooms, Gilbert. The ones you busy making so nice for me you forget to come to the dock.’

 

Gilbert spoke so softly I could hardly hear. He said, ‘But this is it.’

 

‘I am sorry?’ I said.

 

‘This is it, Hortense. This is the room I am living.’

 

Three steps would take me to one side of this room. Four steps could take me to another. There was a sink in the corner, a rusty tap stuck out from the wall above it. There was a table with two chairs – one with its back broken – pushed up against the bed. The armchair held a shopping bag, a pyjama top, and a teapot. In the fireplace the gas hissed with a blue flame.

 

‘Just this?’ I had to sit on the bed. My legs gave way. There was no bounce underneath me as I fell.

 

‘Just this? This is where you are living? Just this?’

 

‘Yes, this is it.’ He swung his arms around again, like it was a room in a palace.

 

‘Just this? Just this? You bring me all this way for just this?’

 

The man sucked his teeth and flashed angry eyes in my face. ‘What you expect, woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? You should stay with your mamma if you want it nice. There been a war here. Everyone live like this.’

 

He looked down at me, his badly buttoned chest heaving. The carpet was threadbare in a patch in the middle and there was a piece of bread lying on it. He sucked his teeth again and walked out the room. I heard him banging down the stairs. He left me alone.

 

He left me alone to stare on just this.

 

SMALL ISLAND. Copyright © 2004 by Andrea Levy. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Table of Contents

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Small Island, winner of both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a tour de force. Spirited and improbably funny, it offers the account of two very ordinary couples in postwar London. Hortense arrives from Jamaica in 1948 to make a home with her new husband, Gilbert. But in a place where the buildings are taller, the weather colder, and the sky more gray than anything she's experienced, she begins to question the wisdom of her decision. It is Gilbert, her new husband and a man she barely knows, who reminds her why it is she has come so far. A war veteran struggling to make a home in the city, Gilbert questions his own resolve when he finds not a hero's welcome but prejudice, contempt, and nearly insurmountable odds. But he is befriended by Queenie, the couple's white landlady, whose own life is upended when her husband Bernard, long thought dead, returns from the war with a head full of memories and an aching heart.

This quartet of voices relates a story of the immigrant experience at once deeply intimate and richly expansive. With an incomparable eye for detail and nuance, an uncanny ear for the oddities lurking in language, and a genuine affection for the weaknesses of her all-too-human characters, Levy has fashioned a wholly engrossing sprawl of a novel that never fails to delight and entertain. (Summer 2005 Selection)
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 49 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2006

    Interesting, humorous, disturbing, hopeless & hopeful

    And I can think of many more adjectives to describe this remarkable story, which is about the experience of Caribbean people who immigrated to Britain after the 1940s war. The author's writing style is fantastic. The story is told in four different voices from the point of view of four different people. As a Caribbean person myself, while at times I was angry, other times I found the story dropdead hilarious. Beaurocratic red tape is alluded to and throughout the squalor and indignity, there is a warmth and even hope in this story. Well done!

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2006

    Incredible

    The book was beautiful. Slow in a few places, but wonderfully written. Touching, thought-provoking, funny, maddening, you have to have an opinion about it. What surprised me the most was the most interesting character turned out to be, for me, Bernard. The end of the book had a great twist and this will make me read all the author's books. Surprised this wasn't nominated for a Pulitzer. Very, very, very worth your while!!

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful Read

    Small Island is a beautiful story told by four different narrators, two Jamaican and two British. All four are trying to make sense of post-WWII Britain and how they fit into a slowly rebuilding England.

    The Jamaicans leave their homeland in search of greater opportunity, a small garden, a bell at the front door; but what they find awaiting them in their Mother Country is much different than what they anticipated. She's not quite the loving mother they thought she would be.

    All four of the narrators' lives become intermingled with the others in a moving story about love, loss, opportunity, and starting afresh after a tumultuous journey.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Wow

    This book is amazing - not just because it should be a reference in Jamaican literature - not just because it should be a staple in any library - not only because it is bigger than the small island mind that it portrays here, but because of the style is pure genius and the writing is clean, beautiful and mesmerizing. I doubt she will be able to top herself any time soon. Andrea is the Queen of literature. I'm about to read Fruit of the Lemon - i think that's what it's called. I won't get my hopes up for it to be as good as this.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2006

    Great Read

    This book is a beautiful tale of four vivid characters. I was drawn in and could not help but keep turning the pages to know what was next. I've recommended it to friends and family who have all reported similar experiences.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2005

    Outstanding!

    I am an avid reader, and I found this book to be possibly the best I've ever read. Ms. Levy is a genius. Every sentence, much less paragraph and chapter is a work of art. Character development is beautiful, and the interrelationship of the characters is fascinating. I never wanted to put it down, and I certainly didn't want it to end. This book should be at the top of everyone's list - I would give it 10 stars if I could.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 1, 2012

    One of my favorites!

    I had to purchase this book for an English course I took at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The story is such an interesting read and the format is easy to get into as well as the pages are unique with how they're cut. I loved this book so much that I bought another to give as a gift to someone close! It's a great edition to any library.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2012

    Great read

    After PBS aired the first half of this story I was left hanging wondering what happened to the characters. Glad I was found this Nook book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am a fan of novels that use history as a background. I learn how people lived during those times of war, depression etc. This novel was a great read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2005

    An enriching story

    Small Island is the amazing story on the first wave of Jamaican immigrants who arrived in Britain after WWII. With beautifully grafted characters and a gripping story line, the narrative takes you through different cultures, people and life styles, and through the dialogue, we are given access to the souls of the characters in their moments of weakness, doubts, fears and dreams. The plot is fantastic and the pace of the novel is so fast and gripping that you will end up finishing the book before you realize it. If you are into Cosmopolitan or multi-cultural fiction, then get this novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2013

    Gingerstar to Streamkit

    Ill meet you at res 7.

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  • Posted August 26, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    History from a unique perspective. I gave it a solid 4, because

    History from a unique perspective. I gave it a solid 4, because it
    offered a glimpse into a slice of postwar (WWII) history from a unique
    perspective - that of Jamaican immigrants in Britain. The voice changes
    between the four main characters: Hortense and her husband Gilbert from
    Jamaica and their white landlord Queenie and her husband, Bernard. The
    Jamaican patois lent an authentic touch, and since the author was born
    in England to Jamaican parents, I wondered if there wasn't a good bit of
    family biography disguised as fiction. The theme of third world
    citizens dreaming of escaping to what they believe will be a grander,
    happier life is not new, and Hortense, well educated for her Jamaican
    community and with high aspirations of teaching in England, certainly
    had dreams that were shattered again and again. Gilbert, who had fought
    valiantly in the RAF during the war, expects to be hailed as a war hero.
    Both encounter unexpected racism and snobbery in 1948 London as they
    compete unsuccessfully with thousands of returning soldiers who are also
    looking for jobs. Queenie deals with loneliness and lust as her dull
    banker husband goes to war and doesn't return when it's over. When he
    finally does show up, he has faced demons of his own in the awful things
    he witnessed, and now he must deal with a wife who not only thought he
    was dead but who is also pregnant. The threads of racism, sexual and
    cultural tension, colonialism, and the deprivations and hardships of war
    are all drawn well. Each of the characters is flawed in his or her own
    way, but as products of their own pasts and circumstances, they were
    portrayed movingly, realistically, and compassionately. One of the most
    poignant aspects of the book -- RAF veteran Gilbert's rejection by
    Londoners after fighting with great devotion for his mother country,
    England -- was described in a review from Publishers Weekly: "When
    Gilbert realizes that his pride in the British Empire is not
    reciprocated, he wonders, 'How come England did not know me?' His
    question haunts the story as it moves back and forth in time and space
    to show how the people of two small islands become inextricably bound together."

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 20, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Loved the story This is a very sad but true story. Hortense &

    Loved the story
    This is a very sad but true story. Hortense & Gilbert were such believeable characters, they make you laugh and they make you cry! I did not expect the ending, very surprising and came together well. Sad that we treat and judge other human beings by the color of their skin.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 15, 2011

    highly recommended

    This was an excellent read it showed how carribean people were treated by a country they thought were their common wealth.

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  • Posted September 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    SMALL ISLAND IS NO SMALL BOOK

    I just finished reading this book. What a great read! The characters were believable and the situations were touching, warm and even hilarious. I would definitely recommend this book. The writer Andrea Levy painted a vivid picture that made you feel as if you were in the middle of it all. Pull up a Big comfortable chair, Big cup of tea, coffee or whatever and go off into an adventure to Small Island. Loved it!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 10, 2010

    Worth Reading

    This novel is about two married couples, one from Jamaica and one from London before and after WWII. I found it interesting from a historic perspective and the characters were well developed.

    Each person has his/her own story which I found more intriguing than when the characters lives intertwined. I also found the ending a bit diappointing. Overall, however, it is a novel worth reading for the insight into the everyday life of everyday people during extraordinary times.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2006

    It was ok, kind of confusing

    I felt this book was good but the switching back and forth in time got confusing. It was well written. Not one of my favorites.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2006

    what a book!!!

    small island was a delight to read. the book was especially enjoyable for me because of my west indian (Jamaican) background. the stories inside the story made me smile. the writing style was easy to get into. the story line flowed well and i found myself unable to put the book down because i was trying to read everyone's point of view.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2005

    Fantastic

    I loved Small Island. The four characters take the reader on a journey encompassing, hope, despair, love, war, racism and sacrafice. Ms. Levy is a great storyteller, I can't wait for her next book. This would be a fun book group read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2005

    A fantastic story

    The four voices of Small Island pack a powerful punch. They are all very different characters who weave an incredible story. Love, hate, racism, desperate times of war and hope make for a great story. Congratulations to Ms. Levy for writing this fantastic book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2005

    Wonderful book

    Ms. Levy has created both interesting, believable characters and an absorbing story. But the icing on the cake is that she has wrapped them all together in beautiful prose.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 49 Customer Reviews

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