Wednesday, January 30, 2013

BOOK: Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island by Andrea Levy, 530 pages

Orange Prize for Fiction winner, 2004

Great book to start the reading year! This was a winning book for the Orange Prize in 2004 and I can see why - readable, historical, big themes, great characters with plenty of flaws but realistic.

Why the title, Small Island?  Because I don't think it gives me the right memory of the book. There are four main characters who interact in 1948. We meet them in their individual pasts, and then all together in a rooming house in London in 1948. The back and forth in time works well, as knowing where they end up makes seeing how they started worthwhile. Two of our characters, Hortense and Gilbert are from Jamaica, a very small island.  Gilbert served in the RAF in England during the war, and then emigrates, with Hortense, his wife, following him to London and the rooming house. The rooming house is run by Queenie, and is the house her husband Bernard grew up in. Bernard is British, with a capital B, but as he travels the world, maybe he discovers that England is a small island as well, not as important as he once thought. Queenie is the star of the book, a small island unto herself in post-war England, with progressive (ie non-racist) views of the immigrants.

That's it for 'small island', the best I can do. It stilll doesn't feel like the right title, even after I've managed to connect it to each character, and maybe an overall theme. I think if it was called 'Queenie', it would be more memorable about the character, the Britishness of the book, and the nickname that I could probably hear in a Jamaican accent.

I loved how Hortense was more British than anyone in the story, and yet was looked upon as a barbarian immigrant by the locals. Bernard was an idiot, who had the least growth, unless growth is considered waking up to his world around him and participating in his own life. Nah, still a stiff-upper lip, totally clueless in his unaccountable superiority, naive idiot. Queenie and Gilbert were the most realistic about life, and were charming, wonderful characters dealing with a terrible hand that life dealt them, and yet improving their situations somewhat.

All the good things I've heard about Small Island were true - a wonderful book (with a lousy title). Did you love the book? What do you think about my title change?