A little while back I thought it’d be a neat idea to start an online book club, to encourage myself, and other engaged but slightly isolated reading folk, to have a common reading goal, and maybe discover some new books and authors along the way.
A fine idea I hear you say. Why, thank you. I thought so.
So, the first book off of the shelf for this laudable endeavour, selected very much at random from the many tomes I own but haven’t read, was Small Island. What a choice! Oh, yes indeed. Whitbread award-winning, greatly praised, benchmark book and career defining title for the very pleasant and intelligent Andrea Levy.
The trouble is that it’s not very good.
That’s a little unfair I suppose. It’s not rubbish, or even close to that kind of dismissive labelling. It’s a fairly hefty, wordy and broad book. It’s got a lot of characters, plot lines and events, some interesting vignettes and some genuine shock points. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, it is a beige book. It is neither here nor there, takes zero risks, and spends its entire time making sure that everyone is well-represented and will be happy with how they’re dealt with. Apart from the Americans. If you’re American, you might feel hard done by.
Small Island is the story of three people (or, really, 6 people) and the effect of the influx of West Indians to Britain during, and following the Second World War. Hortense is the haughty, well-to-do, Jamaican girl with schooling and high ideals of herself, Gilbert is the optimistic and go-getting Jamaican man with fire in his blood and a surety of his place in the world if he can only get to Britain, and Queenie is the salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire lass who ends up in London, determined to better herself, but has crawling self-doubt and a sense of inner destruction.
So, Queenie enters a loveless marriage and ends up bedded by a Jamaican airman, falls pregnant, shows her redoubtful character in the face of clear prejudice against the immigrants and stands up as a beacon of acceptance and liberalism in a Britain of sly looks, snide comments and judgments. She’s feisty and meant to be impressive, and comes off like any one of a billion diamonds in the rough types.
Hortense comes over to Britain looking to expand on her teaching educations and ambitions, is impolite to and affronted by the caustic reception she gets and is astonished that it falls below the high esteem she not only holds herself in, but believes that she should be held in by everyone else. She is shocked at every turn by the lack of Englishness in England, and finds both her new countrymen, and the ones she’s left behind, equally distasteful. She is unlovable, tiresome and unsympathetic.
Gilbert is a man with no preconceptions about England, or how well he’ll be accepted. Ultimately he knows that Jamaica is running out of opportunities and surely, with some hard graft, he’ll find a future in the mother country, from whence he’s served his duty in the war. The reality is the racism and prejudice he faces and stoical way he handles it, and tries to impress and please Hortense. He is charming, but daft and slightly unbelievable in his strident morals.
So far, so stereotypical? Yes I’m afraid. This book is as formulaic as you can get, with no surprises whatsoever. Levy has, in all fairness, layered story atop story, and the historical accuracy of it all is testament to her diligence in research and realism. But, it does not make for a gripping book. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to, maybe it was designed to display the mediocrity and normalcy of these human hardships. It reads like a 1940s EastEnders though, and that is not a great advertisement.
Where Small Island is lifted is in its vignettes. The tinier stories act as blessed relief from the main themes and characters and, when forced to go back to the Queenie/Gilbert/Hortense storyline I found myself a little deflated.
Bernard, Queenie’s feckless husband, has the best diversionary story, with his part of the Indian uprising and life changing experiences, shaking his being, all out of Queenie’s gaze, delivering the only subtle piece of storyline, inasmuch as Queenie never knows what Bernard has gone through. Bernard’s father is a great character and his death truly sad, Queenie’s Yorkshire family life is similarly interesting and dispensed with. Levy couldn’t keep everything going, of course.
The side and back stories are the really interesting bits, maybe because they are so lightly handled and left with lots not discussed or exposed. The fact that the main story and characters are so intimately handled, I feel, reduced them to really being quite boring biographies and the denouement of the book is frankly just silly. I won’t spoil it, but it may spoil it for you anyway.
So, nothing ventured and nothing gained is my analysis of this book, and what it actually is itself. As a piece of dramatic fiction it, well, isn’t. As a historical novel it succeeds in its accuracy, but there are plenty of much more interesting and detailed books about multi-racial armies in WWII and the influx of immigrants post-war. For people who didn’t know anything about this period in history, and like some gentle drama, then it’s clearly won lots of admirers, but for readers who want more meat on the bones of their books, they’ll come away from this still feeling rather hungry.