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.
Praise For Small Island: A Novel…
“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
Picador, 9780312429522, 448pp.
Publication Date: March 30, 2010
About the Author
Born in London, England to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy (1956-2019) was the author of Small Island, winner of the Whitbread Award (now Costa Award), the Orange Prize for Fiction (now Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The BBC Masterpiece Classic television adaptation of her novel won an International Emmy for best TV movie/miniseries.
Andrea’s other books include the Man Booker Prize finalist The Long Song, also adapted by the BBC for television, and Fruit of the Lemon, among others.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
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?
Small Island is alternately narrated by four characters—Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard. How does this narrative style contribute to the drama of the story? Did you find certain narrators more compelling? If you were to choose one narrator to tell the story, which would you chose? Why?
Do you think it is significant that the novel begins with Queenie and ends with Hortense? Why?
In chapter 6, Hortense tells Gilbert that “Celia’s mother is not well” (p 78). What do you think are Hortense’s motives for saying this? Do you think she is aware of her motives? Why? If you were Celia, would you respond differently or the same as she did? Explain.
It could be said that all the characters—Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard—are “flawed.” Explain. Considering the historical context of the story, are certain characters’ flaws more forgivable? Why? How does each of character evolve throughout the story? Which characters evolve most? Explain.
Consider the sexuality of each of the main characters. Which of the four characters’ sexuality undergoes the biggest transformation? Which the least? Compare Queenie’s relationship with Michael and Bernard’s relationship with George “Maxi” Maximillion. How are they different? In what ways are they similar?
How have social attitudes toward race changed since 1948? In what ways might they be the same? Compare Levy’s depiction of racial attitudes in England versus the United States. Do they seem different? If so, how?
On page 145, Gilbert observes “Everyone fighting a war hates. All must conjure a list of demons. The enemy.” What do you think he means? How might this statement apply to our own era?
Consider Elwood’s plea to his cousin Gilbert about joining the British army: “Man, this is a white man’s war. Why you wanna lose your life for a white man? For Jamaica, yes. To have your own country, yes. That is worth a fight. . . I join you then, man. But you think winning this war is going to change anything for me and you” (p 106). Do you agree with Elwood? Why? Do you think Gilbert made the right choice? Why? What would you have done if you were in his situation? Explain.
Gilbert is a black man whose father is Jewish. Do you see any parallels between racial prejudice and anti-Semitism in the world during WWII and today? Explain. Have you or anyone you know been forced to choose between two socially determined identities, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion? Explain.
Do you agree with Queenie’s decision concerning her child? Why? If you were in the same situation, what would you have done in 1948? Today? Explain.