Posted Nov 28 2009
Small Island is a complex, multi-layered book addressing a number of if issues such as race, gender, religion, and identity in general, set to the background of World War-II era England and Jamaica. Four characters narrate the tale, including Black Jamaican immigrants, a White Londoner who earns the contempt of her neighbors for renting to Blacks, and the rentee’s long-lost husband. None of the characters are particularly likeable, although Levy does make them complex.
Towards the beginning the book drags a bit, but picks up steam and I found it to be worth the effort. As a history buff, I found the settings to be quite interesting, as they were hardly run of the mill. A Black man in the British Royal Air Force who’s stationed in the United States? A Jamaican women in the 1940s trying to find a job in London? A British banker who finds himself in a whorehouse in India? Race is a not so subtle theme throughout the book as Levy’s characters compare discrimination in England, the U.S. and Jamaica, while not completely dehumanizing Blacks or Whites. Gender and religion also come up, although the characters also deal with them in the contradictory and often-times hypocritical ways that make up human nature. I found how colonialism shapes the relationships to interesting as well. To paraphrase Gilbert, the Jamaican RAF soldier fighting on behalf of Great Britain, imagine meeting your mother for the first time, who’ve you’ve only heard about, but have romanticized and would do anything for, including defend her against attack. Now, imagine upon meeting her that not only is she an ugly old hag, but doesn’t recognize you as her child, much less want you around. Furthermore, would she come to your aid if you needed it?
While Small Island is hardly all doom and gloom, it’s definitely a heavy read and not for the casual reader. An interesting spin on issues that continue to this day and an opportunity for self reflection.