Sunday, 7 November 2010

Bloggers Book Club Review: Small Island, by Andrea Levy

The BBC book for October was Small Island, a story about life in England during and following the 2nd World War. Queenie Bligh takes in Jamaican lodgers to help her pay the bills whilst her husband is fighting in the war. Her neighbours do not approve. The story is told through the eyes of the book's four main characters - a style I liked as it gave a well balanced story. 

The book starts off with Hortense and Celia in Jamaica talking about Celia's dream to travel to England and have a better life. Hortense showed no real sign of wanting that life at the time, but later effectively steals the life Celia would have had - she steals her boyfriend, bribes him into becoming her husband, and travels to England to live with him and have the good life. It's not quite what she has expected. In Gilbert's last letter before she travels, he promises to meet her from the ferry, waving and jumping up and down with joy - a pretty picture, but of course it is not to be. He has fallen asleep after a long shift and after a wait of over 2 hours, she realises she has no option than to make her own way to his address. When she arrives she is less than impressed with the broken chair, the torn curtains and the the dark brown walls, and hisses "You bring me all this way for just this". She has a short memory, for she is the one that wanted to come (to find Michael).  At first I felt a bit sorry for her, because it's so obviously far removed from her idyllic vision of what England would be like, but then we read a bit more about her and I begin to dislike her intensely. Her treatment of Celia and her mother was dispicable. And once she gets Gilbert Joseph, she treats him like a piece of dirt on her shoe. She got married without committing herself properly - she did not see the need to make any effort to enjoy herself at the wedding party, and thought herself above everyone else. She arrives in England thinking she will have no problem getting a good job with her qualifications, but realises with a shock that the colour of her skin and her nationality detract from any qualifications she may have.

Gilbert Joseph fought in the war, but is certainly not given a hero's welcome by the country he has fought for. I felt sorry for Gilbert, as he seemed to be a very hard working, genuine person, wanting to make a better life for himself in England, a country he fought hard for. He married Hortense to get the money to go to England, but made an effort to make their relationship work. He was greeted with prejudice when he came back from the war and it certainly wasn't the life he had once dreamt of. I felt even sorrier for him once Hortense arrived in England though! He arrived at Queenie's door during the war quite by accident, brought there by Bernard's father, who thinks he looks like Michael, so Queenie had a romance with when Bernard was at war. Gilbert's friendship with Queenie ultimately results in the death of her father in law, due to a riot in which he is shot, but she still takes him in when he comes back after the war as she genuinely seems to care about him.

At the start of Queenie's story I liked her character. She was practical and resourceful in letting out the rooms in her house to pay the bills while Bernard was at war. However, when we read about her childhood, I saw a different side to her - stuck up and mean. Her treatment of the children who had nothing was appalling, and was not learnt by her parents who were generous in giving out soup. Later she only stays with Bernard because marrying him will prevent her going back to the farm she grew up in after her Aunt's death. However, as the war begins and she steps up in looking after Bernard's father, and her work with the Rest Centre, I begin to feel sorry for her, more on a humane level than actually liking her personality. It was a tough life during the war, for all concerned, though I think she was probably one of the lucky ones.

I didn't like Bernard immediately on reading about him. The thought of a man counting out his pennies every time he went to buy something was enough to put me off. (It gave the impression he was a tightwad). Although he eventually stepped up and went to war, he only did so to avoid being placed in the worst ranks if he had been forced to go. When he eventually came back from the war he had a deep rooted dislike of "coloured" people, so he was less than thrilled when he came back to see his wife had rented out the rooms to the jamaicans.  However, I was surprised in the final chapters when he said he would stand by Queenie and the baby, once he had eventually calmed down.

The final few chapters gave a sense of everything coming together. We see Hortense and Gilbert taking the baby and finally making a go of their relationship together on equal footing. Hortense might actually get her golden future yet. We see Bernard and Queenie accepting that they've both been wrong, and been wronged, but are going to stay together anyway. I was heartbroken for Queenie in giving up the baby though. It was a hard decision for her, but she knew that he would have an easier future with Hortense and Gilbert.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt involved with each of the characters, and could empathise with them all at various stages in the book. They all had their own struggles and life during and after the war was a hardship in itself. I would not have picked up this book myself, but am glad to have read it because of the book club!


  1. Great character review here Jenny and I agree with you. I also felt so sorry for Queenie in giving up her baby and she knew it would be the best thing for him but it was the whole coincidence thing that irritated me with it being Michael's baby etc.
    The book really showed up people's foibles and how they really had to rethink their original perceptions. I wish we could have found out what happened to Celia though - did she have a decent life in Jamaica after all?

  2. Jenny, loved your book review. Great summary of the book. Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly for me too. I found myself involved with each of the characters. Each of the characters was complex with likable and dislikable traits. The different, redeeming sides of each character drew me into them.