In Small Island, Andrea Levy examines what happened when volunteers from Jamaica came to England to fight for the British military during World War II and then stayed. She tells the story from the points of view of Queenie, the English wife of Bernard, her Jamaican tenant Gilbert, his new wife Hortense, and Bernard. The narrative moves back and forth in time from before the war to after, and from Jamaica to England to India, where Bernard was stationed.
The varying voices allowed Levy to pull in several different threads, but the central theme of the book is race relations in the 1940s in England. Until WWII, many English people in England had never seen or interacted with black people. Levy is a bit ham-fisted in her portrayal of American soldiers and their segregated ranks, but the contrast with the English is interesting. While the Americans were blatant with their discriminatory Jim Crow rules, the English prided themselves on how the British Empire supposedly led to racial tolerance.
Levy shows that this tolerance was more theory than fact. As black soldiers returned to England as black immigrants, they were treated as unwelcomed foreigners, despite being British citizens. Neighbors resent Queenie renting rooms to Gilbert and Hortense. Although Gilbert planned to go to law school, he is relegated to driving a truck. And college-educated Hortense is told that she will never be qualified to teach in London. Levy makes her point with subtly and humor as Gilbert and Hortense learn to find their way in England and in their marriage.
Levy skillfully weaves the small island theme throughout the novel. Geographically, Jamaica is a small island, but Levy makes it clear that limited ideas about culture, race, marriage, and opportunities made England just as small.
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Small Island won both the Orange Prize and the Costa (Whitbread) Book of the Year Award. My book club read it and it was a enjoyed by all. It counts as my Orange Prize choice for the Book Award Challenge. It would also count for the Typically British Challenge if I had not already read more than my quota for that one.