Literary Criticism and Significance

In an article published in the Harvard Review, Laura Albritton describes Levy’s novel as being “clearly situated in a West Indian literary tradition” in that it focuses on the “consequences of migration.” In her previous works, Levy has told the stories of the subsequent generations after migration—the children who lived in the postcolonial era after Jamaica won independence. Those novels were classified accordingly as being postcolonial literature. But with Small Island, Levy takes a step back in time from her previous stories and examines the lives of Jamaicans who came to England while still carrying ideals of honoring the Motherland.

Small Island won the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (one of Britain’s top literary prizes) in 2004. The book was first published in the United Kingdom. When the book was published in the United States, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Levy’s novel was received “with much-deserved literary fanfare.”

The characters draw most of the attention in Levy’s novel, but they are all affected by the historical context, which involves World War II, the British Empire, and the effect of colonialism on residents of Jamaica. A writer from Kirkus Reviews considers Small Island an historical novel and describes it as “an enthralling tour de force that animates a chapter in the history of empire.” Trevor McDonald, one of the judges for the Whitbread Award, is quoted in the Vancouver Sun as stating that Small Island is

a brilliantly observed novel of a period of English history that many people seem not to know much about.

On the level of pure reading enjoyment, critic Mike Phillips, writing for London’s Guardian, finds Levy’s novel pleasurable. “It’s honest, skillful, thoughtful and important,” Phillips writes. Then he adds, “This is Andrea Levy’s big book.”