The Small Island

The Small Island

Small Island turned out to be a surprisingly well-chosen Christmas present this year from my brother. Normally I’ll read anything, good or bad, without thinking much about it; with Small Island, I was sucked into this highly emotional story from the very first page, and I couldn’t put it down.


Set mainly in post-war Britain, Small Island follows the lives of two couples, Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, and Queenie and Bernard Bligh, struggling to adjust to their new situations in London. Whilst Hortense and Gilbert face racial prejudice after emigrating from Jamaica, Queenie must also deal with the attitudes of her neighbours when she gives lodgings to Gilbert and his wife in the absence of her husband. The novel deals with sensitive issues in such a way as to confront racist attitudes but simultaneously delving into why such attitudes exist – making the award winning Small Island a contemporary classic.


What is really striking about Levy’s novel is the use of first person from the perspectives of all four of the main characters. Whilst in other novels the reader may get to know one or possibly two characters well, here the reader makes a strong connection with all four characters, empathising with their individual situations (or not in the case of the rather pretentious Hortense). A second generation immigrant from Jamaica herself, Levy particularly portrays the dire situation that Jamaican immigrants were in in post-war Britain well. After serving in the RAF for Britain during the war, the aspiring lawyer Gilbert, instead of being welcomed as a hero, is confronted with racism from every angle and struggles to find work to support his unwanted wife Hortense. Levy’s own experience brings the Josephs’ situation to life; a situation that is especially poignant.


Whilst Small Island may not be the quickest of reads (being over five hundred pages long), it is certainly worth it. Small Island is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, and the heart-warming resolution gives the multi-cultural societies of today the hope and the belief that racism, in all its manifestations, will be eradicated once and for all.

By Julia Molloy

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