My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In Small Island Andrea Levy deftly demonstrates why I can’t quit this addiction of writing and reading. Novels like hers is why I fell in love with the Art. Levy creates a seamless story, so tightly woven, circling around four central characters, Hortense, a Jamaican lady, emphasis on “lady,” who, despite her orphaned childhood, was given a proper upbringing and education. Through a hasty marriage to Gilbert Joseph, a fellow Jamaican, who’s stricken with good luck and an honest and admirable heart, Hortense makes her escape from her small island of the West Indies to make her dreams come true on that other small island, the empire’s home-front, also known as England. The two try their luck in World War II-torn London, befriending Queenie, wife to ruddy bloke Bernard Bligh, who’s been missing in action since he was sent to fight in India. With her husband gone and no family of her own, Queenie rents out her house to Blacks almost as a lark, like Clarissa Dalloway, setting off to buy flowers. And, like Woolf’s heroine, this lark ripples into a tsunami wave of change.
Levy echoes Jean Rhys and begins her story in the Caribbean outpost, opening with a scene of Jamaican elders reciting Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.” Sharing the cool shade of a tamarind tree, Hortense listens to English poesy while playing with geckos in the palm of her hand. She daydreams about her handsome cousin, Michael. Destined to be a war hero, he dares to woo an English woman and disappears at the outset of war. We know full well that dreams and reality will collide, but what kind of universe will be wrought after each character recovers from their world exploding?
There are many explosions both personal and monumental throughout the book, and, as readers, we’re expected to pick up the pieces of some these stories and find our way out from the rubble. Levy plants all sorts of clues to help us unravel the different mysteries each character faces. Every one of them is fleshed out so deliciously, following their converging and diverging paths is wholly irresistible. Why is Hortense drawn to London? What makes Gilbert Joseph so special? How has Queenie Bligh been able to survive for so long alone during so many bleak years of war? What happened to her husband Arthur who was to win the war for England in the far east? These are only a few of the questions we’ll riddle out along side each of Levy’s wonderful creations.
Hortense conveniently has no parents; she’s an orphan in the tradition of many English novels such as Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. Like them, she has no allegiances and can practice free will as she likes. Her story starts with her departure from Jamaica to England where she dares to make her big dreams come true. Sometimes the characters may seem a little too familiar, too Dickensian at first glimpse, as if Levy’s relying too much on traditional tropes. Gilbert Joseph is awkward, goofy, and always seems to finds himself knee-deep in money-making schemes, which keeps him mired in debt. He is almost too good to be true with his endless patience and compassion. Even in the face of the most hurtful prejudice, Joseph stands by his principals: “Politeness has always been my policy. It makes the good people of England revise what they think of you, if only for a second or two, they expect us colony men to be uncultured. Some, let us face it, do note expect we can talk at all. ‘It speaks mommy. It speaks’ has been called after me.” To balance out his kindness, Hortense is often grating with her over-zealous haughtiness.
Who is most interesting and holds her own throughout the entire novel is Queenie. She is alive. Of all the cast, Queenie Bligh remains the most unique and therefore most captivating. She’s the most realized character because she’s so conflicted; we know her and understand her but we have no idea what she’s going to do next. Before her husband is drafted to India, dulled by their loveless marriage, she finds excitement at the eve of war, and her giddy anticipation is borne of naivete but entirely understandable from her point of view: “When I got back inside I talked to no one. I went straight to the bedroom, shut the door, and turned the key in the lock. That raid was the most exciting thing that ever happened in this house. Tingling with life that was how I felt. I took two steps and leaped up onto the bed. There was no doubt about it. I was looking forward to this war” (220). We empathize with her though we know that the combat will be nothing like she imagines.
World War II quickly rushes in, turning the world upside down and inside out. We get to experience the horror and the small glories of it through four very distinct perspectives. No sooner than he arrived in London, Gilbert Joseph is shuttled across the Atlantic to train. Yet before he travels, he comes to the painful realization that his fellow Englishmen and women are completely ignorant of his own history, which is supposed to be the shared history of their great Empire:
“Let me ask you to imagine this. Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as mother…Then one day you hear mother calling–she is troubled, she need your help. The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she, ragged, old, and dusty as the long DEAD? Mother has a blackened eye, bad breath…But for me I had just one question–let me ask the mother country just this one simple question, how come England not know me?” (116).
For the English, Jamaica is just a foreign word that’s wholly separate from English culture and English history though Jamaicans were taught to view England as their matriarch: “It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British Empire would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was a threat. But tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any Sargeant who would have been able to find that dear island?” (118). With Gilbert Joseph we see the world from an outsider-insider-outsider. It’s confusing, yes–but so is life, and Levy captures this confusion, brilliantly pinning us to the center of it.
In his travels around southern United States, Levy affords American readers an especially rare glimpse of ourselves through the eyes of an English Jamaican, and repeatedly affirms why I read fiction. Through his eyes we get to see ourselves from the outside looking in. British multiculturalism examines U.S.’s ugly history of segregation from a West Indian perspective: “If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then come let us face it: I and all the other colored servicemen were fighting this war on another front.” Gilbert puts a completely different spin on the idea of nationalism for us.
Throughout this novel Levy reminds me why I’m addicted to good stories like hers since we literally get to experience a unique point in history in someone else’s skin and see the world through a set of rare and exceptional lenses. Gilbert is stuck in a station of life dictated by the color of his complexion and compounded by a war that has blasted away at the culture and country he hoped to call home. Everyone in this story has risked their world in hopes to trade for a better one.
Each of them sacrifices a greater part of their self for their country. There’s an absolutely delectable scene when Joseph meets Queenie, who offers him a pork pie in the middle of desperate rationing, and he musters every nerve of himself, ignoring the pangs of hunger to deny a taste of meat because he knows there are families throughout England who are starving like him, yet these families would give the shirts off their backs to help the men who fight for them. Queenie means to honor the brave and insists that Joseph feast, and the tension drawn out of this simple conflict is marvelous. Levy is incredibly masterful at filling her book with experiences of real humor and painstaking truth.
Her story and characters are seamless. Before marrying Arthur and moving to London, Queenie first worked in her parents’ butchery, and her background perfectly fits who she is, deepening her character with rich complexity. Later we learn how Queenie was rescued by a la de da lady aunt from London who managed a candy shop and, soon as her niece arrived, pushed Queenie like a piece of sweet to the highest bidder. Like Hortense, Queenie married the first bloke who could get her out of dodge.
These creations are full of life and breath. They will make you laugh. They will inspire tears, and they will leave their imprint on you, indelibly. With careful precision, Levy stitches together each character to give us a full-bodied world full of love, loss, and meaning, so that we have only to marvel at her work of art. I cannot praise this novel enough. It’s a treasure to be opened and enjoyed often.