Jamaican Gilbert joins the Royal Air Force to defend England, his ‘mother country’ during WWII. He brings his new wife, the prim and proper Hortense, to live with him in London. Being raised in the colonies dreaming of England, Hortense has high hopes for her new life and is horrified to see the dilapidated bedsit Gilbert has secured as their home. Hortense had also never experienced racism until she moves to the UK. When she realizes that her qualifications will not be recognized and she is unable to find work as a teacher, she is humiliated. As a proud woman this rejection is a substantial blow to her ego and jolts her from her naivety.
Working class couple Queenie Bligh and her husband Bernard live in London. When Bernard goes off to war Queenie takes in boarders to make ends meet. Her tenants are mostly Jamaican immigrants like Gilbert. Queenie stands out among her neighbours for her opposition to their racial prejudice. She also finds that her husband harbours racist views.
Told in alternating narratives by each of the four characters with their own distinct voice, the book flows beautifully and seamlessly. While quite a long book, the story is gripping and it is a fairly quick read. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction for Small Island, as well as the Whitbread Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. These accolades are well deserved as Levy has created a magical work of literary fiction.
Small Island has been made into an excellent BBC miniseries starring Ruth Wilson (Queenie), Benedict Cumberbatch (Bernard), Naomie Harris (Hotense) and David Oyelowo (Gilbert). The actors are phenomenal and bring the characters to life. Well worth viewing this adaptation, but best to do so after reading the book so as to get the most from the novel.