It’s been a while since I’ve had such conflicting feelings about a novel. Andrea Levy’s Small Island holds the attention for almost the full duration of its 500-plus pages. It’s bright and conversational, sometimes very funny, and finds a way to handle serious issues with a lightness of touch that heightens its impact. Besides, it sheds light on a period of crucial social change - Jamaican emigrants settling in post-WWII Britain; the problems faced by both newcomers and original settlers - that many of us in India wouldn’t know much about but which does hold interest for us too.
And yet, somewhere along the line this book loses fizz and focus. Towards the end, its characters turn into caricatures - more symbols than believable people - and the climactic "twist" could have hopped in from a Barbara Cartland novel. Also, of the four narrative voices Levy uses to tell her tale, at least one - though interesting in its own way - never seems relevant enough to the main story. These flaws aren’t enough to override all the book’s pluses, but they are disappointing all the same.
"Small Island was written with enormous charm and was a clear choice for our Book of the Year," said Whitbread Book judge Trevor McDonald recently. Enormous charm is something it certainly has, especially when written in the voice of the uncouth but likeable Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican who fights in the RAF and then takes up lodging in London. The Gilbert narratives provide some of the book’s richest material - from the slapstick humour that accompanies his attempts to placate his bride Hortense (freshly arrived in England with stars in her eyes) to the poignancy of his likening the Mother Country to a beloved distant relative who turns out, when seen up close, to be a hostile, "stinking hag". But even Gilbert’s disillusionment with his new surroundings pales in comparison to Hortense’s utter shock. Unlike him she’s educated, having trained to be a schoolteacher in Jamaica, speaks in sentences like "No one would think to enchain someone such as I" and has rosy notions about how the English speak and behave. In short: she’s nicely set up for a fall.
The author was born in England and has lived there all her life but is Jamaican by origin, making her a distant cousin of our own "dislocated" writers like Jhumpa Lahiri. Levy’s previous novels have explored the problems faced by black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. However, here she captures very well not just the emigrant’s problems but also the outraged British reaction to seeing "darkies" in their midst. The best insights come from the account of the third in her pantheon of narrators - Queenie Bligh, who, to the horror of her neighbours, takes in coloured people as lodgers. Queenie’s narrative provides a view of the cheerfully unashamed (and ignorant) racism prevalent in London - a city we know as so cosmopolitan today - just a few decades ago; of otherwise well-meaning Brits shocked to their core at the very thought of having to step off a pavement to allow two coloured people to pass by.
Queenie’s interaction with Hortense is also intriguing, because one gets a sense of the indefinable workings of spoken language. In conventional terms the Jamaican Hortense’s English is probably better than the English-born Queenie’s, but that counts for little here. Hortense is destined to remain the outsider not just because of her accent and pronunciation but because of her self-consciousness, her over-formality; the implication is that the language isn’t hers, and no amount of education will amend that.
Two-thirds of the way through, Levy introduces her fourth speaker, Queenie’s husband Bernard, and it’s here that the book starts to lose focus. This isn’t quite Bernard’s fault. He has an engrossing enough tale of his own to relate (though the author perhaps overdoes his staccato style), it’s just that his narrative seems to belong to a different book from the one containing Gilbert, Hortense and Queenie’s stories. We learn about Bernard’s misadventures in India - where he was posted during the war - and the reasons for his delay in returning to his wife. But even given the racism in Bernard’s revulsion at the idea of India being left to rule itself ("How do those constantly squabbling Hindus and Muslims even tell each other apart" he wonders), there’s little here that’s connected with the central thread of the story, which we’d left far behind in England. And when Bernard finally does make it home, things get all too predictable.
Small Island has a lot going for it and this review is by no means a decisive thumbs-down, just a personal disappointment with the way it eventually turned out. There’s much that’s praiseworthy in the earlier sections of the book. I especially enjoyed the way Levy’s friendly style briefly changes to throw up unsettling imagery: in, for instance, a description of segregation in a movie hall, the usherette’s torch exposing black people sitting together like "a horde of writhing cockroaches". Or Gilbert espying what seems like a beautiful green brooch on the ground but is revealed to be a cluster of flies caught by the light.
Part of the reason for the overall disappointment may have been the hype, for this is a richly awarded novel, having won both the Whitbread Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction (if you follow these things, you’ll know it’s rare for any book, however acclaimed, to get more than one major literary prize). Personally, I think the judges read only the first two-thirds of the book before making their decision; the final 150 pages are a letdown.