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.”