Small Island

By Andrea Levy
(Picador, Paperback, 9780312429522, 448pp.)

Publication Date: March 30, 2010

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback, Paperback

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Selected by Indie Booksellers for the Summer '10 Reading Group List
“Andrea Levy's extraordinary novel won every prize in England except the Booker. While the tone is often hilariously funny, Levy manages to convey the pain experienced by Jamaican immigrants to Britain in the decades following World War II. Small Island is told through four voices, the Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph who marry in order to escape their small island and live in a rooming house run by Queenie, a peaches and cream Englishwoman, who also married Bernard for her own reasons and just as disastrously. Levy spares nobody from her sharp wit -- Hortense is haughty; Gilbert, a tease; Queenie is a cheater, and Bernard is feckless -- but she also endows each of them with a certain dignity. A truly enjoyable book.”
-- carla cohen, Politics & Prose Books &, Washington, DC


Small Island is an international bestseller.  It won the Orange Prize for Fiction, The Orange Prize for Fiction: Best of the Best, The Whitbread Novel Award, The Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.  It has now been adapted for the screen as a coproduction of the BBC and Masterpiece/WGBH Boston.

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.  Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers---in short, an encapsulation of that most American of experiences: the immigrant's life.

About the Author

Born in 1956 to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is the author of three previous novels and has received a British Arts Council Writers Award in addition to the Orange Prize and Whitbread distinctions. She lives and works in London.

Conversation Starters from


  1. In the “Prologue,” how does Levy show that perception of race is often a result of misperception? Which other scenes in the novel reveal similar racial misperceptions? What are they and how do they lead to conflict?

Praise For Small Island

"It's all here: exceptional dialogue, clever narrative, and a rich story that tells us something new about our shared history on a planet that is increasingly small and yet will always be inhabited by individuals possessed, at our best, by singular consciousness and desire."--Star Tribune (Minneapolis) "There is a great skill in the way she presents characters and dialogue; she has powers of observation and an ear for language that make her books a pleasure to read."--Times Literary Supplement (UK) "Andrea Levy gives us a new, urgent take on our past."--Vogue "A perfectly crafted tale of crossed lives and oceans . . . Happily, the hype is warranted--Small Island is a triumph."--San Francisco Chronicle "Andrea Levy's beautifully wrought novel is a window into 1948 England. . . . A bristling, funny, angry tale of love and sacrifice."--Entertainment Weekly "Levy tells a good story, and she tells it well--using narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew."--The Washington Post "Familiar cultural observations in closely observed and surprising lives . . . Levy's writing deftly illuminates the complex and contradictory motives behind each character's behavior."--The New Yorker

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