As an avid browser of charity shops and second-hand bookshops, I come across certain books on a regular basis and, without even reading the synopsis, judge them or even write them off completely. Surely there must be a reason for a book to be in every single charity shop I enter, often two copies sat disconsolately on the shelf? And sometimes I erroneously thought that reason was the book was simply not very good so nobody wanted to keep their copy.
This happened with Small Island by Andrea Levy, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t want to read it for over a year before I finally happened to stumble across the synopsis online and realising – hold the phone! This actually does sound like something I’d like to read. I then rush out to the charity shops and after scouring all eight of them in my town, what do I find? Nothing, of course. The book is getting its revenge for all those times I passed over it without an inkling of its contents. It takes me a good three months to finally come across a copy again, and this time I don’t hesitate.
It was January of this year when I tracked down a copy, and in February came the awful news that the author Andrea Levy had passed away at the age of 62 from breast cancer. As is often the case when an author dies, their books are picked up by more readers. I began reading Small Island two weeks after Levy’s death and within the first few chapters was both devastated that such a talent had disappeared from the world, and glad that she had poured so much of her heart into her work so that a part of her would be able to live on forever in the hands of her readers.
Small Island focuses on two married couples both before and after the Second World War. There’s Hortense and Gilbert, two Jamaicans who marry quickly so that Hortense can follow her now-husband to the UK, a place they know as the ‘mother land’ and which appears to promise them a warm welcome and plenty of opportunity. Then there’s Queenie and Bernard, a white British couple in a rather unloving marriage who are separated when Bernard is called up to war. Without her husband to stop her, Queenie opens up their large house to Jamaican migrants looking for lodging, drawing disapproval from her neighbours.
A lot of the books on the shelves today tackling racism tend to be based on US race relations, which are obviously important, but as a Brit I do prefer novels that focus on the situation in the UK, both past and present. The Windrush generation were in the news a lot last year due to the scandal involving the lack of Home Office records kept for the children who travelled to the UK from the Caribbean on their parents’ passports, making it difficult for them to prove that they reside in the UK legally. Small Island highlights the time just after the migrants travelling on the famous HMT Empire Windrush arrived in this country called Great Britain, about which they’d heard so many wonderful things, fully expecting to be welcomed into their ‘mother country’ with open arms and instead being subject to abuse, hostility and discrimination.
Levy fearlessly exposes the skewed systems that forced educated men and women from the Caribbean into unemployment, stating that they weren’t qualified ‘enough’ for the same position they held in Jamaica in the UK. I found Hortense’s chapters particularly compelling, as she struggles to adjust in a country that looks down on her but refusing to give up. We get chapters from all four of the main characters’ perspectives, but they don’t alternate evenly which I found to be a bit jarring. Near the end, there are almost 100 pages of Bernard’s narration which I found tiring after a while – I’m all for unlikeable characters especially when it comes to exposing prejudice, but I’d rather the narrative voices be more interspersed.
As well as the fraught relations after the War, Levy also explores the role played by Caribbean soldiers during the War. Usually WWII narratives are not my favourites when reading historical fiction, but Levy turned that preference on its head with her fascinating insight to the way black soldiers were treated by their colleagues and commanding officers.
Overall, Small Island is a vast, sprawling narrative that will immerse you from the get-go, and one I’d highly recommend especially if you’re interested in learning more about the Windrush generation.
Oh, and the reason there’s so many copies in the charity shops? A very helpful person on Instagram informed that it is probably because it was chosen as a World Book Night book in 2012, so thousands of copies were given away for free.