Picador, New York, 2004
Winner of the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004.
I own this one.
This novel is rich, multi-layered and courageous. “Small Island” could refer to the island of Jamaica, the island of Britain or the island of an individual life. Based in Britain during the years after World War II, it follows four characters, sometimes moving back in time to bring their histories, values and prejudices into focus.
Two of these characters, Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, have emigrated to England from Jamaica, expecting to find their place and enrich their lives in the “Mother Country”. What they find is a place ripe with prejudice. Levy holds nothing back showing the struggles of these British citizens as they try to make a life in London. The verbal abuse and racial discrimination are all too familiar, like discrimination and segregation in the United States. I did not know about this part of England’s history, somehow I though it was different.
The other two characters, Queenie and Bernard Bligh, show parts of the spectrum of British prejudice and class during a time of great upheaval. All of Levy’s characters have strong voices, distinct and different. She portrays them with great humor and pathos.
Luck is a funny thing. To some only a large win of money at the pools is luck. Or finding a valuable jewel at your feet on a London street. That surely is luck. But during war luck take another turn. The bomb that just miss you is luck. Only your leg blown off and not your head is luck. All your family die but your mummy is spared – congratulations, you a fortunate man. So, let me tell you what is luck for a coloured man who is just off the boat in England. It is finding Queenie Bligh. It is seeing she has a big house and is happy to take me and a few of the boys as lodgers. Greater than sipping rum punch from a golden bowl – that is luck England-style. From pages 183/184.
When they’re close, bombs whistle. Their melody is a sharp descending note that only sounds right when it ends with a bang. Then everything you thought was solidly fixed to this earth suddenly takes flight, for just a second, and then is put back down – if you’re lucky in the same place. Breath is ripped out of your lungs, your eyes bulge, your stomach squeezes its contents up or out, and your heart races so unfamiliar you think it is a clockwork toy. I remember fairgrounds – the helter skelter, the switchback – paying good money to make my face blanch, my knuckles whiten. In those days, before the war, I thought it was fun to be scared witless. From page 225.
Other themes that run through the novel are about war, its devastation and the effects of colonialism, both in the British West Indies and in India. All of this is told in language that is rich and beautiful. This complex story of lives and loves touched my heart. I loved this Orange Prize winner, have enjoyed every Orange Prize winner I have read and can’t wait to read more nominees and winners.