Small Island – Andrea Levy

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Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize, Winner of 2004 Whitbread Prize (now Costa)

Small Island is a book I have been meaning to read for a very long time, but for some reason it never really grabbed my attention and kept sinking down the TBR pile. In an effort to prevent it from becoming lost forever under stacks of books I made a conscious decision to read it, but it still took me three months to finally start!

Small Island follows the first wave of Caribbean immigrants as they move from Jamaica to the UK. The book centres on four characters: Jamaican newly-weds, Gilbert and Hortense; and English couple, Queenie and Bernard. Bernard has failed to return from WWII and so Queenie lets rooms in her house to the Jamaican couple. We discover their complex relationships as well as their individual feelings as they cope with the effects of war and moving to a new country. The plot travels forwards and backwards in time, describing their lives before, during and after the war, but the main theme of the book is the racism encountered in both countries.

The pace of the book was gentle and I’d describe it as charming rather than the more intense book I was expecting. The plot held my attention, but although I was entertained all the way through I didn’t encounter anything that really bowled me over.

The narratives of the women were well done, but I found the male characters to be less convincing and almost boring in places. Bernard’s section was the weakest and I question its inclusion in the book.

I also found the book lacked vivid descriptions – I couldn’t picture the Jamaican scenes and I’d have had no idea where in the world they were if I hadn’t been told. These are minor quibbles really – a 560 page book has to be very good to provide an interesting plot throughout.

Recommended to the few people that haven’t already read it!

I have reserved a copy of The Long Song from the library and will be interested to see if it is good enough to win this year’s Orange prize.

Have you read Small Island?

Which is the best Andrea Levy book you have read?

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  1. I’m one of the few still left who hasn’t read this! It is on my TBR list, but there’s really no burning urge to get started on it, despite having had it recommended to me repeatedly: my best friend at University was so inspired by it that she wrote her master’s thesis on Caribbean immigration to the UK!

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I felt the same way – despite numerous recommendations it never really appealed to me and I had to force myself to read it. I think my thoughts about it were proved correct – I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t the stunning read everyone said it would be.

  2. Laura says:

    I read the book a while ago and also enjoyed it, although I agree with you that it didn’t “bowl me over”. And you’re right about envisioning the Jamaican scenes. If I’d visited the country before it would have been easier, I suppose. I am looking forward to reading The Long Song!

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I haven’t been to Jamaica either, but a good novel should transport you there, whether you have been or not. Let’s hope this issue is addressed in the Long Song.

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m another one of the few who hasn’t read this yet. It’s actually never sounded appealing until just now. I feel like I had the wrong idea of the plot of this book. Thanks for this review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, It is good to know that I’ve made the book appeal to you – I hope that you enjoy it!

  4. Colleen says:

    This is on my shelf (and has been for awhile) but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I just listened to a podcast of the BBC’s World Book Club discussion of this book with the author and now I really want to read it. If you haven’t heard the discussion – it gives a very good insight into the author’s motivation for the book and her opinion of the characters.

    1. Jackie says:

      Colleen, I love the BBC World Book club! I hadn’t noticed Andrea Levy was on – I’ll have to go and have a look – thanks for letting me know!

  5. Steph says:

    This is a book that I passed over many times, but I think I’m finally in a place where I think I could appreciate it. As you know, I’ve been wanting to read more international fiction, and I’ve just heard so much good stuff about this book. I can enjoy books that are gentler is pace and tone, but I do need to be in the right mood for them, so thanks for mentioning that!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, As you know I’m not a big fan of gentle books, but this book had a good enough plot to keep me interested. I think you will enjoy it, but make sure you set aside a bit of time – it is a long one!

  6. Verity says:

    Everyone raves about this, but for me, I prefer her other three earlier books.

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, I haven’t heard about any of her earlier books, but will keep an eye out for them now you’ve recommended them.

  7. She says:

    I’m glad you got around to reading it and did generally like it! I agree, it is a very gentle novel, but I think it worked well for the story. Like you, it was much different than how I thought the topics would be written about.

    1. Jackie says:

      She, It is funny that we build up an impression of a book that turns out to be totally wrong – I’m pleased I finally got round to it too – now I just have to get to Little Friend, which I’ve been putting off for an equally long time.

  8. Stujallen says:

    i ve this and a earlier levy on tbr ,must get them read at some point oh oh to have more time to read

    1. Jackie says:

      Stujallen, I could do with some extra time to read her earlier books too!

  9. Nicole says:

    I haven’t read this one but will keep it on mind. I was one of the few dissatisfied with Little Bee, so I would like to read a different perspective on a similar topic.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nicole, I think this is a very different book to Little Bee. It doesn’t jhave much in common with it, but do agree that if you weren’t a fan of Little Bee you might enjoy the gentler pace of this book.

  10. Beth F says:

    Humm. I wasn’t sure that this was for me, but then I read Nicole’s comment. Since we agreed on Little Bee, maybe I’ll take her advice and keep this one in mind.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Perhaps you should wait to see what Nicole makes of it?!

  11. I read this recently as it had been languishing on my TBR pile for so long. It was actually the BBC tv adaptation last December which prompted me to read it as I wanted to convince myself that the book couldn’t possibly be as bad and as Catherine Cookson like as the tv drama made it out to be! I know it might seem odd to see an adaptation and then read the book, I guess most people do it the other way round, if at all as they don’t want to spoil the reading experience.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the book although I would agree that it didn’t seem to capture the spirit of Jamaica. I think it’s more a novel about fitting in and how people always find someone else to look down on. I have The Long Song to be read and “hope” to fit it in soon….

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I really wanted to read this before the BBC adaptation, but never got round to it. I think I’ll have to see if I can get it on DVD. I think this is one of those books that might be improved by screening – the addition of images will really improve it.

  12. With its inclusion on the Orange longlist, there’s a very good chance that I will end up reading A Long Song before Small Island; the latter still isn’t calling my name loudly enough from my bookshelves so it will be a little longer until I pick it up.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It didn’t call me either, but felt it was a book I needed to have read. I hope The Long Song is more enjoyable.

  13. Grandpa Phil says:

    In the film adaptation, Levy makes so much of the photos, from the beginning to the end. One photo is of Michael in Jamaica. He gave it to Queenie. At the end, his son shows in the family photo album a picture of Queenie. That photo of his father would be as important to Michael’s son as was obviously the photo of his mother, Queenie. What happened to the photo of Michael? Why was it not in the album?


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