It’s easy to see why Andrea Levy’s 2004 monstrously successful Small Island was turned into a BBC mini-series. It has all the right stuff: historical fiction setting of post-WWII London, heady and illicit romance, examination of societal changes in race, class and gender through the small and focused familial experiences of one London home. Ditto why it’s so enjoyable to read.
Following two couples – one from Jamaica, one from London – in the years after the war (with a bit of flashing back to help readers appreciate how they come to be where they are) the novel takes on racism in the military and post-war England, economic immigration from Jamaica, discourses (and dearly beloved ideals) of colonialism and the conventions of gender and marriage.
Shifting among the four characters’ points of view, I found myself drawn to Hortense and Gilbert (our couple from Jamaica) more than Queenie and Bernard. The relationship between Hortense and Gilbert is beautifully nuanced, and the way they each see themselves and one another (and themselves in relation to the other) is richly drawn and fascinating (how often we misunderstand ourselves!). Bernard, in particular, was (perhaps appropriately based on his character) dull to read. His point of view is introduced late in the novel and I found myself struggling to care about his experiences, even though they offered a new (for me) portrait of role of the British military during WWII in India-Burma and helped explain his tedious (and small) vision of the world.
The novel has some very good sex scenes.
I’m not sure how I missed this one. It won the Orange Prize, Whitbread and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. And then the whole BBC thing. But I did. And I don’t know how it came into my possession or on my stack of to-read. Glad that it did. And in my post-I-only-read-white-men reading world I am aiming to read more… broadly*. Maybe you will, too. You could start with this one.
*M. suggested I spend a year without reading anything written by a white man. But then the new Jonathan Safran Foer arrived and I decided I couldn’t abstain (and doing so would be a bit silly). I am, however, finding myself consciously asking myself why I want to read (or not) a proposed title and encouraging myself to read beyond what I know I’ll like. If you have other ideas, or are curious about trying to read outside your zone, let me know and we can talk about it (or maybe you want to guest blog?).
**Rereading this I’m worried I make it sound like I only like reading books by white men. Clearly not what I meant. More I read more books by white men than I do other authors. And maybe authorship doesn’t matter (Elena Ferrante!) but it also does. So yep.