March 2020 Open Book Group – Small Island by Andrea Levy

Thank you to Pat for moderating Small Island by Andrea Levy, 2004 Orange Prize winner and Whitbread Book of the Year.

In Small Island Levy examines the experiences of Jamaicans who migrated to England after the Second World War. The year is 1948. We meet Hortense, an almond skinned Jamaican and her dark-skinned husband Gilbert. They are lodging with warm open-hearted Queenie and her spineless, mealy-mouthed, husband Bernard, in Earls Court, London. Each character has a visceral reaction to their current circumstances.

To understand why her characters reacted as they did Levy examines each of them “before”  The before being the years leading up to WW2 and then the war years themselves. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards between 1948 and each character’s “before”.

Hortense is the illegitimate child of a high ranking government official and a black woman. She is brought up by her paternal uncle’s family together with her cousin, Michael Roberts. She is devastated when Michael joins the RAF as a pilot and is reported missing in action. It is clear to the reader that Hortense is in love with him.

Skin colour is the class delineating factor in Jamaican society. Hortense is a very well mannered but a dreadful snob. As she is lighter-skinned she considers herself above her compatriots. She dreams of living in a large house in England where all is genteel and civilised.

When WW2 breaks out Gilbert has no compunctions in joining the RAF to fight on behalf of the motherland, England. A motherland whose history and geography has dominated his Jamaican school education. He believes it will provide opportunities for self-advancement, but visions of being a pilot are quickly dashed when he is assigned the role of a lowly driver. On his return to Jamaica, he loses his demob money on a failed business venture. Hortense offers to lend him the funds to return to England on the condition he marries her.

Meanwhile, in England, Queenie is brought up on a pig farm. Her destiny, defined by her sex, is to look after the pigs, witness their slaughter and make endless meat pies for sale. She meets emotionless Bernard. She has no romantic interest in him but rather than stay on the farm she accepts his offer of marriage. She moves into his childhood home, a large terrace in Earls Court with his widowed, shell-shocked, mute, Somme survivor, father Arthur.

Bernard signs up and goes to fight the Japanese in Rangoon. He witnesses the human devastation of Partition with bodies strewn on the streets of Delhi.

Queenie lives through the Blitz and takes in lodgers to make ends meet. One day Michael Roberts and his friends come to stay while they on leave from the RAF. Queenie spends a passionate night with Michael, in stark contrast to her loveless marriage to Bernard.

The War ends. Gilbert sails to London on the SS Empire Windrush and lodges with Queenie. Michael Roberts, who has not been killed, drops in to see Queenie on his way to start a new life in Canada. To Queenie’s delight, after he has left, she finds herself pregnant. Hortense arrives to join Gilbert and is dismayed by the grim, cold bedsit he is living in.

As the three of them are negotiating the harsh realities of racism towards Gilbert and Hortense. Bernard turns up. Bernard reaction is equally uncompromising. The England he fought for, he decries, is not the England he has returned to.

Queenie gives birth to her half-caste baby. Every prejudice is thrown in the air. Where all the pieces eventually settle leaves a painful, but ultimately hopeful, end to the novel.

It was 100% thumbs up for Small Island from the 21 eager OBGers who had gathered for their monthly fix. We agreed that observing post war Britain through Gilbert and Hortense’s eyes gave a viewpoint rarely explored.

We felt for the humorous, laid back Gilbert, so innocently joining up trusting he would be given equal job opportunities. However, he was accepted socially by and mixed freely with the white RAF troops. Gilbert was stunned by how the white US GIs treated the black GIs. Apartheid, engrained in 1940s US society, was summarily transferred to their army’s hierarchy.

We thought the cinema scene perfectly captured these different degrees of racism. Gilbert automatically sat with Queenie and Arthur only to be told by the usherette, fearing a riot, to sit with the black GIs in the back rows. When Queenie objected, a riot, instigated by the white GIs, did break out with fatal consequences for Arthur.

Regardless of her haughty nature, we also sympathised with Hortense and her disappointment with drab, dilapidated post-war England. When Queenie offers to take her shopping. Hortense wears her best coat and hat and can’t believe Queenie is going to join her in a dowdy “housecoat”. Later, Hortense dons her best dress, her wedding dress, to apply for a job as a teacher. Levy’s writing beautifully captures the scene from Hortense’s eyes, a smart capable woman holding a well earned, Jamaican teaching certificate and from the receptionist’s eyes, a ridiculously dressed immigrant, with a strange accent, waving two bits of scrap paper in her face.

Levy did succeed in maintaining a dispassionate eye. Queenie’s character demonstrated that not all English shunned the new immigrants. She befriended Gilbert during the war and, even though her neighbours have ostracised her for bringing “darkies” onto their street, she happily accepted him as a lodger. She tries to help Hortense and clearly enjoyed Michael Roberts’ company. Levy also introduced two minor Jamaican characters. One was on his way to being a successful property developer, while the other a wastrel on the take.

No surprises that we found Bernard the least attractive character. Though, as one member rightly pointed out, for men like Bernard the war was an exciting time. Suddenly a friendless, non-describe bank clerk found himself stalking the Japanese with a band of close comrades. Many members felt Levy had spent too much time on his wartime experiences. When she shoehorned in Partition it started to feel like a history lesson.

One member noted Australians had volunteered to fight in two world wars 12,000 miles away. Aboriginal soldiers had risked their lives only to return to a country where they were disenfranchised. We nodded in ascent, but time constraints prevented us from taking that line of debate further.

We all appreciated her writing. One member particularly enjoyed the dialogue of Hortense and Gilberts initial meeting. Gilbert’s humorous, playful nature and patios were beautifully tuned with Hortense’s snobbism. Another raised the ambiguity of the title. Was the Small Island Jamaica or narrow-minded England? Some members found the style of shifting timelines confusing.

Pat brought our attention to the Windrush scandal in Britain, a fallout of Brexit’s anti-immigration campaign  Blank faces of incomprehension around the room.

We were satisfied with the ending calling it Shakespearian. All the characters were neatly placed to move on with their lives, notwithstanding the dramatic irony of baby Michael’s parentage.

The Guardian placed Small Island 52nd in its 100 best books of the 21st century, nobody at today’s meeting would disagree with that.

Our next meeting was to be Tuesday, 14th April when Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was to be discussed, moderated by Maggie Scott.

However, given our numbers we can’t all sit in the meeting room the required, virus busting, meter apart, so April OBG is, regretfully, CANCELLED.


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