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****************************************************** Update: 26th January 2005. It has just been announced that, in addition to winning the Orange prize, Small Island is also this year's winner of the Whitbread prize. It was judged to be "hilarious" - which is not quite how I thought of it, although it is full of gentle humour and warm, witty writing. A really well deserved win; and a book not to be missed.
Below is the original review - written shortly after I had finished reading the book.
****************************************************** I’ve always been a bit wary of buying books that have won major literary prizes. I’m a bit suspicious of the judges motives. Do they really think the prize-winner is worthy of winning - or do they want to show off to us, the general book-buying public, that they have a superior understanding of what constitutes a good book. As most award-winning books tend to be wordy, obscure or just plain pretentious (sometimes all three) I wonder if the judges are even remotely interested in whether they are readable or not.
Which is why the other week I was standing in WH Smith pulling Small Island by Andrea Levy off the shelf, looking at the cover, putting it back, taking it down again ... having another look. In the end my husband who had offered to buy me the wretched book lost his patience and went ahead and bought it anyway.
The reason for my reluctance was that Small Island is the winner of the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction. Did that lofty accolade mean that it was going to be an up-hill struggle just to make sense of it? Was I going to end up baffled and bemused by it - unable to grasp the story-line let alone the long words!
The answer, I’m very pleased to say. is a resounding NO! Small Island is a very deserving prize-winner. For once those judges have got it 100% right.
The Orange Prize is awarded for “accessibility, originality and excellence in writing by women” The judges (chaired by the writer and broadcaster Sandi Togsveig) are advised to “choose only books that move them, make them think, and more than anything, that they enjoy”
Small Island is the story of post-war Britain and the arrival of the first immigrants from the West Indies. This is a story that I thought I knew well - but in Andrea Levy’s hands it is so much more than a tale of prejudice, poor living conditions and the harsh reality of a country still recovering from war.
The “present day” of the book is 1948 - but much of the book takes place in what the author simply calls “Before”. Thus, the reader follows the lives of the main characters: Queenie, Gilbert, Hortense and Bernard as they meet and merge until they all end up under one roof: 21 Levern Street, Earls Court, London SW5.
Queenie is the daughter of a Lincolnshire butcher, married to boring Bernard a bank clerk who has lived all his life in his parents home in Earls Court. When by 1948 he has still not returned home from the war Queenie starts to let out rooms to lodgers.
Amongst the lodgers is Gilbert; Jamaican born and bred. During the war he was in Britain as an RAF volunteer. After de-mob he finds there is nothing for him in Jamaica and the call of the Mother Country so strong that he returns to find a very different Britain from the one he served in wartime. “The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she (Britain). Ragged, old and dusty......”
Before leaving Jamaica for the second time Gilbert has hastily married Hortense - whom he barely knows. It is she who has paid his fare on the Empire Windrush - in exchange for marriage and the assurance that she will join him in Britain later.
Each of the four main characters has their story to tell: and each has their own distinctive “voice” and mannerisms that come across as they tell their tale. Queenie is down-to-earth but with a good heart (although she tries hard to keep it hidden). Hortense is something of a snob. A teacher in Jamaica, she considers herself a cut above “that fool man” Gilbert. She speaks the “Kings” English and has a wonderfully stilted turn of phrase. Her arrival in Britain has been a complete and utter disappointment to her. She had expected so much more but got “Just this?”
Gilbert speaks in a Jamaican patois - and is a far deeper and more thoughtful character than his wife would ever give him credit for. Bernard on the other hand is exactly as Queenie describes him - an un-sympathetic, dull clerk with little or no conversation.
The Sunday Times described Small Island as “the literary equivalent of a switch-back ride” which is exactly what it is. The book leads you back and forth from wartime Britain, to Jamaica, to post-war Britain and on to India and Burma. Wherever the scene is set and whichever character sets it; the story always seems totally believable and the pace is always fast.
The amazing thing is that Andrea Levy (judging by her photo at least) is still a young woman but she writes with such authority that it’s hard to believe that she hasn’t witnessed the events of the book first-hand. Her description of the London Blitz, for example, is probably the best you will ever read in any novel - you can almost smell the stench of smoke and see the devastation to buildings and “ the bombed-out who’d had the cheek to live through the calamity of a world blown to bits”
Levy is a British born black writer but as such she has no axe to grind about the experience of immigrants to this country. She allows us to laugh at her characters - black or white - they all have their differences and their faults and failings regardless of skin colour. They also have their strengths as well as their weaknesses - even poor, dull Bernard isn’t as totally awful as Queenie would have us believe.
Yes, the characters do experience prejudice but the author is so skilful that she never allows it to dominant the novel. It’s almost as if she is telling Gilbert and Hortense that this is the way things are - now get on with your lives.
Small Island is at times a brilliantly funny book - maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is written with humour, warmth and wisdom. It is impossible not to feel involved with the characters and to really care about what happens to them. In fact, when I had finished the book I found that I was still thinking about the people in it and hoping that the rest of their lives turned out well for them. And that to me is a true indication of just how “readable” it is.
Published in paperback by Review Books price £7.99 .