Book: Small Island

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Small Island: A Novel

Author: Andrea Levy
Publisher: Picador

Hortense shared Gilbert’s dream of leaving Jamaica and coming to England to start a better life. But when she at last joins her husband, she is shocked by London’s shabbiness and horrified at the way the English live. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was. Queenie’s neighbours do not approve of her choice of tenants, and neither would her husband, were he there. Through the stories of these people, Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change.


Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, Small Island, deftly brings two bleak families into crisp focus. First a Jamaican family, including the well-intentioned Gilbert, who can never manage to say or do exactly the right thing; Romeo Michael, who leaves a wake of women in his path; and finally, Hortense, whose primness belies her huge ambition to become English in every way possible. The other unhappy family is English, starting with Queenie, who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher’s daughter only to marry a dull banker. As the chapters reverse chronology and the two groups collide and finally mesh, the book unfolds through time like a photo album, and Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with a humor and tenderness that is both authentic and bracing. The book is cinematic in the best way—lighting up London’s bombed-out houses and wartime existence with clarity and verve while never losing her character’s voice or story. —Meg Halverson

Barnes and Noble

Small Island, winner of both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a tour de force. Spirited and improbably funny, it offers the account of two very ordinary couples in postwar London. Hortense arrives from Jamaica in 1948 to make a home with her new husband, Gilbert. But in a place where the buildings are taller, the weather colder, and the sky more gray than anything she’s experienced, she begins to question the wisdom of her decision. It is Gilbert, her new husband and a man she barely knows, who reminds her why it is she has come so far. A war veteran struggling to make a home in the city, Gilbert questions his own resolve when he finds not a hero’s welcome but prejudice, contempt, and nearly insurmountable odds. But he is befriended by Queenie, the couple’s white landlady, whose own life is upended when her husband Bernard, long thought dead, returns from the war with a head full of memories and an aching heart.

This quartet of voices relates a story of the immigrant experience at once deeply intimate and richly expansive. With an incomparable eye for detail and nuance, an uncanny ear for the oddities lurking in language, and a genuine affection for the weaknesses of her all-too-human characters, Levy has fashioned a wholly engrossing sprawl of a novel that never fails to delight and entertain. (Summer 2005 Selection)

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