Small Island

Second only to the birth of the Manchester Book Club back in April, two of the top highlights of last year were the boyfriend and I’s cheap and cheerful camping holidays. Like my smug book choices for our trip to Glastonbury in September, yesterday I found myself musing on one particularly gorgeous afternoon spent sat outside a wooden hut on Eigg in June, bottle of beer in one hand and Andrea Levy in the other…

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Although it’s almost a lifetime since I finished Small Island, the pure enjoyment I got from Levy’s exploration of the migrant experience in post-war Britain lingers on….the perfect read for a lazy summer’s day. The vitality that the four-person narrative brings to the tale (chapters are alternately told from the point of view of London landlady Queenie Bligh, her husband Bernard, RAF recruit Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense) strikes the perfect chord and keeps the story rolling as we follow in Gilbert’s footsteps, facing the hard experience for the Jamaican ex-serviceman in bombed-out London head-on. Needless to say, poverty and racism are abound. Levy, however, delivers her story with sophistication.

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Headline : Paperback : 2004 : Fiction : 530 pages

Although this book felt like pure, simple entertainment whilst basking in the sun, this is a tale with a brain and a heart after all. Levy’s bridging of too disparate cultures appears effortless. As well as grasping into the heart of wartime London, the Jamaican steals the limelight, in all his/her tooth-sucking glory.

In a world where ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ were permitted entry into certain establishments, Queenie (not to be confused with Blackadder’s ‘Queenie’) is a breath of fresh air. Although we are occasionally bombarded with a little too much melodrama to be believed (e.g. cinema segregation between blacks/whites ending in a deadly shoot out in a village street) it is Queenie’s consistent frankness and transparent lack of prejudice that save the reader from the complete and utter disgust felt as we are reminded of the unacceptable ‘welcome’ smartly felt by many ex-servicemen from the colonies returning to the supposed ‘motherland’. Bernard’s very British brand of racism vs Hortense’s delusions of grandeur make for hard debate indeed.

DEBATE. That’s what we need. This would undoubtedly be a perfect choice for a book group. A hard-hitting subject combined with easy-going prose. Go on. Give it to your book group. Or even better. Read it on the beach (only English cider will do)….

8 thoughts on “Small Island

  1. Have you heard the BBC World Book Club program with her? A very interesting program. Wish our library would acquire a copy, I’m so looking forward to reading this book! I think I’ll follow your advice and recommend it for book club next year.

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    1. Yes I did actually! Just the other night when I was trying to regain the flavour of the book. I adore those radio programmes and listen to them everyday on the way home from work 🙂 You should read this book, it’s the perfect thing to read for when you just want to relax and be entertained

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  2. We had Small Island for my book club about three years ago and it was a brilliant choice. It’s usually quite hard to get everyone into a proper discussion, Some of them get tired of talking about books quickly, but I remember with this one we were still chatting over lunch.

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    1. The fact that you sometimes find it hard to discuss some books is heartening because I (sillily I know) usually end up feeling so guilty when we have similar ‘tumbleweed’ nights at the Manchester Book Group. It does vary wildly depending on the book and I’m glad my gut instinct about this one proved right! 🙂

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    1. It is beautiful Marie! Completely unspoilt and the people (only 70 or so of them living on the Island) are lovely and so welcoming. If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Hebrides you must go (and if you’ve already been then ignore me because you know that already!)
      I’m very proud of my super-blue photo. My photographs are never that great but I’d have to be pretty terrible with scenery like that as my muse…

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  3. I think this might be on of my favourite books of all time. I loved all the narrative voices, even the not so nice (though not really his own fault) one in the mix. It is a book that completely captivated me and I just loved both Queenie and Hortense who are two of my favourite female characters ever. I think they both manage to steal the show wonderfully from each other alternately. Great review, brilliant view.

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    1. Why thanks very much Mr Savidge! One of your favourites of all time? You surprise me… I probably wouldn’t go that far as I didn’t necessarily feel like I was reading anything brand brand new. However, it was so well written – as all of Levy’s books are – and I also ADORED the female characters. Bigger b*lls than the men by far!

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