THE STORY IS SET IN 1948 WHEN THE FIRST IMMIGRANTS from the Caribbean arrived in Britain. Among these is Gilbert Joseph from Jamaica. His wife, Hortense, with a teaching diploma and dreams of a fulfilling life in the Mother Country, follows him soon after. Here Levy draws on her own parents’ experience.
The book is quite breath-taking in the wide range of motifs it weaves into its narrative: the geo-political relations between Mother England and Jamaica; the mythologies – both personal and political – engendered by the colonial experiences of the main protagonists; the meshing of the lives, aspirations and hopes of these characters against the wider context of WWII, the end of British Rule in her colonies – principally India – and the way her colonial denizens were drawn into supporting the war effort of the Mother Country.
Levy uses multiple voices of the principal characters to unfold the narrative. Initially I found this a little disconcerting, but by the end of the book I became immersed in the individual voices, which allow the reader to empathise with each character. It also underlines the even-handedness with which Levy tackles a personally and racially emotive experience (Levy’s father sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush ship and her mother joined him soon after). Thus, we get a first-hand account of the shocking racism that Gilbert, Hortense and other Jamaicans encounter. They lodge with Queenie Bligh, a white Londoner, and face hostility from her white neighbours who see the ‘coloured’ tenants, the ‘niggers’, as a threatening presence on their street.
Hortense, with her ‘golden skin’, is something of a snob. She sees herself as being superior to other dark-skinned migrants but is painfully disabused of the fanciful notion that her teacher-training qualifications in Jamaica will land her a ‘respectable’ job in Britain. The realisation that she, a black migrant, is perceived as ‘ignorant’ and ‘uneducated’ debunks not only her personal myth of her own self worth but also of the bountiful and benevolent Mother Country. She despises Gilbert for the pitiable conditions in which they struggle to make a living.
Gilbert’s experiences highlight the vital support that Jamaican men gave Britain during World War II. Levy has said in her interviews that this is a piece of British history that is not widely known or discussed. Gilbert comes to the painful realisation that, although Jamaicans share Mother England’s war burden and losses, his fellow Englishmen and women know or care little about his own history. In a memorable incident Gilbert and Queenie are in a local cinema. The US army attempts to impose a segregated seating plan. Gilbert resists. In the ensuing riot Queenie’s father-in-law is shot dead by the US military police.
Queenie, a working class Londoner, is the most endearing of the characters. As the book opens she has given up waiting for her husband, Bernard, to return from his service in the War. To make ends meet, she lets out rooms in her house to immigrants from Jamaica. Her aspiration for love and fulfilment is poignantly juxtaposed to the unfolding racial tension. Her acceptance of Michael Roberts (Hortense’s cousin) and later, Gilbert Joseph, as men and individuals in their own right is a beacon of light in the pervading prejudice and suspicion. She looks after her father-in-law, Arthur, during Bernard’s unexplained absence. The cold and insecure Hortense is also touched by Queenie’s kindness.
The least satisfactory character is Bernard. He wanders about the book and his life in an almost stolid acceptance of his lot. We meet him during a mutiny in India.
If I may voice a small reservation, it is that Levy’s treatment of the racial riots of 1947-48 in Calcutta, which resulted in Hindu-Muslim genocide (in the wake of the Partition of India), is the weakest part of the narrative. One cannot fault the factual records on which she has drawn. However, in stark contrast to the eloquent and powerful passages about her main protagonists, Levy seems almost unmindful of the scale of the catastrophe that shook the very foundations of British India and which still overshadows South Asian contemporary history, namely in the unresolved Kashmir problem.
In conclusion, without any drama of polemics, Levy deftly and sensitively handles the potent issue of racial differences, prejudice and ignorance. The title plays on the pitfalls of mutual ignorance and highlights possibilities of cross-cultural interaction and co-existence.
Small Island has won several literary awards: The Orange Prize for Fiction (2004), the Whitbread Book of the Year (2004) and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (2005). It has also been chosen as one of the twenty-five books to be part of the World Book Night 2012 on April 23rd, 2012.
– Golden Langur