Small Island, by Andrea Levy

This book tells the story of how Gilbert, a black man born in Jamaica, comes to live in England after having fought for the British in the war. While he encounters quite a lot of racial prejudice, there are some white people who behave decently, and he manages to find lodgings with Queenie Bligh, whose husband has disappeared after fighting in the far east.

The sections written by Gilbert alternate with with those written by other characters in the story (Queenie, Gilbert's wife Hortense, and Queenie's husband Bernard), and successive parts of the book jump forward or backward in time, so it's not a exactly a linear storyline, but the changes in perspective work well in providing a rounded overall picture.

This started out a bit slow and I was worried that it was going to be a bit of a chore to read: the sections covering Gilbert's and Hortense's childhood didn't really engage me. But after I while I fell under the book's spell and became more interested in what happened. By about half-way through the book I was fairly hooked, and read the second half in only a couple of sittings.

Because each section is told in the first person, you are able to empathise with all the characters, even when their behaviour might seem outwardly questionable, and irritating to others. So although Hortense's appears (from Gilbert's point of view) to be somewhat of a scold, the fact that we see England and Gilbert's grubby accommodation through her eyes makes her reaction seem quite justified. And at the same time we, like Gilbert, worry on her behalf about the disappointments that she's going to face when she tries to find work, even though she herself is full of confidence.

Similarly with Bernard and Queenie: the world is unkind to both of them but neither can quite appreciate what the other has been through. Each of them is shown, in their own way, to be a decent person, but their value systems are different enough to prevent them from being able to understand one another.

There was humour in the book: one recurring theme was the problem of understanding: despite Hortense speaking what she regarded as perfect English, she had trouble communicating with shopkeepers. And when Gilbert gave an impassioned speech about the equality of man regardless of colour (which was a pretty good speech I thought), the response is "I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying".

A good read, worth looking out for more.

Completed : 3-Jun-2006

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