Winner, Orange Prize 2004
Winner, Whitbread Book of the Year 2004
Winner, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2005
Andrea Levy wrote Small Island as a way to research her Jamaican parents’ immigrant experience. The title, Small Island, is apt as it refers to both Jamaica and Britain. The book takes place both before and after World War II and is comprised of 4 main characters, with each character speaking in his or her own voice throughout the novel. Gilbert and Hortense are a couple from Jamaica who rent a room from Queenie in England. Queenie is renting rooms out because her husband Bernhard has not yet returned from the war.
The novel covers several issues: war, immigration, prejudice, and class. I love historical fiction because history is so much more interesting when it’s portrayed in the personal experiences of the men and women who lived it. I’ve always wondered why England didn’t have as much of a racial problem as the U.S., but in this book we discover that there were, in fact, prejudices that needed to be overcome. While Gilbert was so proud to be a part of Mother England as a Jamaican citizen, enough so that he went to war for her, his ‘Mother’ not only didn’t appreciate his efforts, she didn’t even recognize him as her child.
Each character in the book is so well defined. I got a kick out of Hortense and her ‘white-gloved,’ prudish ways. I appreciated that Queenie was ahead of her time in terms of racism, and even though Bernhard was quite the opposite, I felt sorry for him. Gilbert was perhaps the star of the novel as just an overall good-hearted person and patriot.
I always enjoy hearing authors speak about their novels, and if you’ve already read the book (because there are spoilers), you might want to hear her interviews here:
Andrea Levy interview for The Guardian Book Club:
Andrea Levy interview with BBC’s World Book Club:
Not only did Small Island win the Orange Prize, it was also voted The Best of the Best out of all the winners by the Orange Prize committee chairs. While my favorite Orange winner so far is probably Half of a Yellow Sun, I do understand why Small Island has a strong following as well.
2004, 439 pp.