Welcome to another post! I’m writing a short spoiler-free book review for Small Island by Andrea Levy.
→ historical fiction
→ 533 pages
→ cw: racial slurs, racial violence, prostitution, childbirth, suicidal thoughts
Small Island is set in 1948, just after World War II. The book mainly revolves around 3 viewpoints: Gilbert, Hortense and Queenie. Hortense comes to England six months after her husband Gilbert took the ship Empire Windrush, in the hope of a better life. But England is not what they dreamed of. Queenie is the landlady who takes in the Jamaican lodgers, since her husband is presumed dead after the war and she needs to move on with her life. Through these characters, Levy explores racism, imperialism and the Windrush generation experience.
While Small Island is set in 1948, most of it is set Before, which retells Hortense’s life in Jamaica, Gilbert’s experience in war-torn England as part of the RAF and Queenie’s relationship with her husband Bernie. Although it meant there was less focus on their adjustment to England, I think this gave a much better insight into each character’s unique viewpoint and an understanding of England in the 1940s (spoiler: it was very racist). The use of 3/4 different voices also gave new perspectives into each character, and Levy mastered the clashing of two cultures and everyone’s misconceptions and prejudices.
There are also 3 settings: Jamaica, London and war zones (mostly India). This could have made the story over-saturated with information and description, but it only added to the rich background of the story, and didn’t really slow the pace down, since the focus was more on the characters.
Be prepared to get emotional. Levy explores a wide range of the forms of racism, from physical attacks to verbal abuse to discrimination. I think the saddest moments were Gilbert’s experiences with the American GIs and Hortense’s job interview, which was a smaller deal than Gilbert’s but Levy made even these small micro-aggressions heart-wrenching. Her characters were realistic and flawed and I couldn’t help but get attached (apart from Bernard). You really get to see the racism entrenched in England and America and the differences between it – although white Americans were more openly aggressive, white British people held the same prejudices and slyly denied black people of their dignity and livelihood, which was just as hard to read.
But there were some light and heart-warming moments in here too. I loved Gilbert and Hortense’s growing relationship and I wish it had been explored a bit more even. Gilbert and Hortense’s determination (and Queenie’s in a sense) made their injustices so much worse but also added hope and pride to their story.
Thank you for reading!
This sounds like a really interesting book centered around a very important topic. Really want to get into reading historical fiction as I enjoy coming away from books having learned something but that genre would add a bigger dimension to that compared to what I usually get and raise awareness about things that so often get swept under the rug. Brilliant review Ella ✨💕
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Yess that’s what I love about historical fiction, genres like fantasy still raise awareness but it’s a lot more subtle. Thank you! 🥰