Small Island presents the stories of four people who come together in London in the 1940’s. The narrative unfolds through sections titled “Before” and “1948,” which contain first-person narratives from the four main characters. The story opens with Bernard and Queenie Bligh, a middle-class couple living a dull life in a staid, sere marriage.
Queenie is the only daughter of a rural butcher and his wife. Although as a child she was smart and did well in school, her education was limited by her parents’ need for her help on the farm. Dismayed by the blood and gore of her father’s trade, she has fled to London to live with her widowed aunt. Her aunt sends the teenage Queenie to elocution lessons, buys her lovely clothes, and puts her to work in the shop she owns. While working there, Queenie meets Bernard Bligh, an older bank clerk. Bernard’s father, Arthur, had returned from World War I psychologically damaged, and Bernard and his mother had to care for him as if for a child. When Bernard’s mother died in her forties, Bernard assumed the care of his father.
Bernard courts Queenie in a taciturn fashion. The two have little in common, and Queenie had dreamed of a more romantic and exciting suitor. When her aunt suddenly dies from a stroke and her family assumes she will return to the farm, Queenie agrees to marry Bernard. Bernard does not want his wife to work, which initially seems like a wonderful luxury to Queenie. Her days, however, are spent caring for Arthur, and Bernard does not allow her to make changes in their musty old home. Bernard is a perfunctory sexual partner, and their sexual relationship is a boring chore to Queenie. Although they both hope to have children, Queenie does not become pregnant.
The other main characters, Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, are Jamaican immigrants to England. Born of a peasant mother and a well-to-do, respected married man, Hortense was sent as a small child to live with her father’s cousin and his wife. Their son, Michael, a year older than Hortense, is a handsome, spoiled, and charismatic young man. Although Hortense is in love with him, he looks upon her as a little sister. After a scandal involving a married white woman, Michael leaves for England to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). Hortense later learns that Michael’s plane has been lost, but she refuses to believe that he is dead.
Gilbert Joseph is one of nine children of an alcoholic Jewish father and a Jamaican mother. Brought up to revere England as Jamaica’s mother country, Gilbert is one of many islanders who join the RAF. He is eager to fight the Nazis, believing that if they are conquered, discrimination in the world will end and life in Jamaica will be better. He hopes to study law after his service ends but is encouraged to become a baker instead. After he is shipped back to Jamaica, a series of financially disastrous ventures with his childhood friend make him want to return to England.
Hortense is sent to a teacher training school in Kingston. There she befriends Celia, who wants to marry Gilbert and go to England with him. After Hortense cruelly reveals to Gilbert that Celia’s mother is mentally unbalanced, Gilbert abandons Celia. Hortense promises to give Gilbert money to return to England if he marries her and promises to send for her after he is settled. Within a few weeks they wed. Hortense is completely innocent in sexual matters, and their marriage is unconsummated when Gilbert leaves.
In London, the Blighs’ staid lives are turned upside down by World War II. Queenie is determined to help the poor families who have lost their homes in the air raids, despite Bernard’s irritation. When he refuses to let her bring a homeless family to live with them, she defiantly takes a job in the refugee center, begins working long hours, and becomes emotionally involved in her clients’ lives.
Bernard eventually joins the RAF. Assigned to the Repair and Salvage Unit, he serves in India and then Burma. While Bernard is away, three RAF pilotsone of whom is Michael Roberts, Hortense’s cousinare temporarily lodged at the Blighs’ home. Queenie is charmed and aroused by the flirtatious Jamaican, and they spend a passionate night together, Queenie’s first fulfilling sexual encounter.
Queenie takes Arthur to stay at her family’s farm in order to shield him from the worst of the bombings. One afternoon, he wanders away and is found by Gilbert, who...
(The entire section is 1825 words.)