Small Island Summary

Synopsis

Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island, published in 2004, is set in 1948 with flashbacks that take readers to scenes of World War II. One of its strongest themes is that war causes casualties (both on and off the battlefield) that are physical and psychological as well as individual and societal. The other major theme is that of racial discrimination and the challenges facing immigrants.

Three main characters drive this story. Queenie is a white British woman who recognizes the differences between white people and black people but pays little attention to them. Queenie has been left on her own. Her husband, Bernard, is in India on behalf of the British Air Force (at least, Queenie thinks that is where he is). Although the war has ended, Bernard has not returned home. To support herself, Queenie rents out rooms to whom her neighbors call “colored” people. The money she makes is keeping her alive.

One of Queenie’s first tenants is Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican. She actually knew Gilbert a few years back when she was living in the countryside. Gilbert had come to the farm where Queenie lived with her father-in-law, and they had become friends. At the time, Gilbert was in the British Air Force. In 1948, Gilbert finds Queenie in London. He is no longer a soldier, and his new bride is about to arrive from Jamaica; Gilbert needs a place for them to live. Although Queenie’s house has been damaged by German bombs and has fallen somewhat into disrepair (because Queenie cannot finance the upkeep of the large building), she lets Gilbert rent a room. In fact, Queenie was one of the few white Londoners who were willing to do so. Gilbert had quickly discovered that although he was accepted as a British soldier, once the war was over and his uniform was returned, the prejudice of his compatriots had returned.

The theme of discrepancy between romanticized vision and reality is also woven through Levy’s novel. This theme is most often characterized by Hortense, Gilbert’s wife. As a girl living in Jamaica, Hortense had thought of England as a promised land—everyone was happy and rich in England. Once she got off the ship, she was faced with the cold reality. She had not imagined how harsh a British winter could be. Another confounding aspect of living in England was that although Hortense had prided herself as one of the better educated people on her small island, British people had trouble understanding her perfect (Jamaican-accented) English.

The heart-wrenching and sometimes humorous challenges these three characters must face and the friendships they build provide the basis of this story. Starr E. Smith from the School Library Journal referred to Small Island as “a masterful depiction of a society on the verge of major changes.”

Small Island Summary

Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island (2004) is primarily set in England in 1948, following World War II. It is told through four different perspectives; alternating chapters are captioned with one of the four main characters’ names. In this way, the author announces which narrator has been assigned the task of relating his or her version of the linked story. It is necessary at times for the reader to remember who the narrator is, and Levy deftly creates distinct mannerisms and language to help identify each narrator.

The first character introduced is Queenie, a young and white British woman. Readers meet Queenie while she is still a child. The product of a farm woman and a butcher, Queenie grows up in a world overwhelmingly void of contact with people from other cultures until she sees a black African man at a farm exhibition. She is amazed at how different this man seems from any other man she has ever seen. Although she initially fears him, her curiosity makes her draw nearer to him.

The story then moves to the lives of Gilbert and Hortense, both from Jamaica. Hortense meets Gilbert through a school friend who had intended to use Gilbert to take her off the island. Although Hortense looks down on Gilbert because of his lack of education and the crudeness of his language, she comes to understand her girlfriend’s plan in how to use him. At the time, single women were not allowed to travel on their own. As Hortense becomes infected with her friend’s dream to live in England, where she believes that everyone is rich and happy, Hortense schemes to make Gilbert her own. She tells Gilbert that her friend’s mother is mentally ill so he will no longer want to marry her. Then Hortense lures Gilbert to herself by promising to give him her savings so he can afford to go to England. Soon, Hortense locks her arm around Gilbert’s as they stand in front of a Jamaican minister to be married. Shortly after the wedding ceremony, Gilbert leaves Jamaica without consummating his marriage to Hortense. He will travel to England to find a job and a place for them to live. He promises to send for Hortense in no more than six months, and he keeps his promise.

The year is 1948 when Hortense arrives in London. She finds the city much colder—in many different ways—from how she had imagined it. It is winter, and the gloomy weather is depressing. The people are not friendly, and so many of the buildings are in poor condition from being bombed in the years prior to her arrival. In addition, Gilbert is not at the dock to meet her. She wonders if he has forgotten about her. When she finally locates Gilbert, she discovers that their home is a very small room in a rundown house that is owned by a white woman (Queenie). There is little heat, and the sounds of rats crawling on the other side of the walls keep her awake. Gilbert had not forgotten about her, but he overslept and is startled to find her at the front door.

Through a flashback, readers learn the history of Gilbert’s relationship with Queenie. It begins when Queenie moves to the country home of her father-in-law, Arthur, after her husband, Bernard, enlists in military service. At the time, Gilbert is in the Royal Air Force. He is standing in a field when he realizes that a man is following him. The man does not seem right in the head. Every time there is a loud noise, the man falls flat on the ground. One time, the man lies down in a muddy puddle and Gilbert helps him stand. As he brushes the wet soil from the man’s face and clothes, he finds a note the man is holding. On this piece of...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)