Friday, 24 August 2012

Something for the weekend - Small Island

I had owned a copy of Small Island for quite a while before I got round to reading it and I wish I'd read it sooner.

The book is about Jamiacan immigrants to Britain after World War II, being mainly set in 1948. As the 'mother country', England holds great promise for Gilbert and Hortense. Gilbert had fought for England in the RAF during the war and had a much better experience than the black members of the US army and he expects to have the same warm welcome when he returns to make a life with his new wife, Hortense. She imagines that having gained her teaching qualification in Jamaica, she will find it easy to get well-paid employment, but it is not easy and the two of them have to live in one room in a boarding house run by Queenie.

Queenie Bligh is married to Bernard, who went to war and never came back so she rents out the spare rooms in her large house to immigrants, much to the chargrin of her neighbours. She is one of the most open-minded characters in the book and Levy gradually fills in details of her past, especially her touching relationship with her father-in-law, Arthur.

I felt like all of the characters in the novel were beautifully drawn. Through them Levy explores a time of flux in Britain's history which few people are probably aware of. She explores the themes of empire, prejudice, war and love and it is a truly moving book which I think everyone should read. You get just enough of each character's story at each stage to make you keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them all. They are a group of people trying their best to get by in difficult circumstances, which I found really touching. 

I agree with the Guardian, that this is a defining book of its decade.

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