From edition

Review of Andrea Levy, Small Island

Levy’s choice of title is an important indication of the themes of her novel. During the Second World War, the people of Britain became more aware that they inhabited a ‘small island,’ as their vulnerability to invasion was exposed at the same time the British Empire began to retract. In the Caribbean, the expression ‘small islander’ is used to disparage those who are not from the ‘big’ island of Jamaica, and the novel includes an examination of the experiences of returning Jamaican servicemen who had to confront the smallness of their homeland together with a sense of confinement and restriction that had not been felt before. Their first migration to the ‘Mother Country’ of Britain on the SS Empire Windrush, was a watershed moment in the history of both islands, a moment around which Levy’s story is centred.

Told from the perspective of two couples (speaking as four individuals) whose stories converge in London in 1948, Small Island is a consideration of the beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society and the prejudices (in terms of race, class and gender) that permeate it. The narrators: odd couple Gilbert and Hortense who emigrate to Britain after the war and the equally mis-matched Londoners Queenie and Bernard from whom they rent a room, are the inhabitants of two Small Islands in the novel – Jamaica and Britain – their stories, refreshingly, are explored not in opposition to each other but rather as two parts of a historical moment, with Levy turning a critical and compassionate eye on both.

Whilst Queenie is presented as comparatively without prejudice, her husband Bernard is an unashamed racist. Yet Levy never allows discussions of race and racism to be just black and white. Bernard’s horrific experiences fighting in the Far East and a post-war stint patrolling violent disturbances in India are seen as contributing factors to his fear and loathing of ‘foreigners’. Hortense’s class convictions, which cause her to haughtily and repeatedly enquire, ‘is this how the English live?’ are shown to be partly a defence mechanism, a way of dealing with the rejection she suffered as a child. Levy seems to take care to ensure that her readers understand the costs of her character’s bigotries and limitations – and their complexities. She does not use race to confer either knowledge or insight but, rather uses the interaction of her black and white characters to share an experience that could lead to more knowledge.

In analysing this moment of contact and the lives of the characters which led them to this point, Levy takes a historical approach to evidently still pertinent cultural and emotional questions around what it means to be British, and to be Black and British more specifically. Gilbert and Hortense have been brought up as children of the British Empire and have pinned all their hopes on the ‘Mother Country’. As returned RAF serviceman Gilbert considers:

Oh, there were plenty men like me, wandering this small island, their heads cluttered with the sights they had once looked on. If you would listen then we would talk ­ widen your eyes with stories of the war and the Mother Country… Come, ask a question you have always wanted to know. The King ­ oh, a fine man, and Shakespeare too. Paved with gold, no ­ but, yes, diamonds appear on the ground in the rain (173).

Post-war Britain, however – and more specifically London – still reeling from years of bombing and deprivation, does not live up to this image of a welcoming mother, happy to be reunited with her child. The new immigrants are met instead with mistrust, prejudice and, in many cases, blatant hostility. Issues of race and ethnicity had been conveniently ignored or at least ‘overlooked’ when Britain required its ‘children of Empire’ to fight on behalf of British culture and its dominant ideology. However those first immigrants from the West Indies (and later, people from other parts of the Commonwealth including Ireland, South Asia, Italy and Cyprus), quickly discover that they are now regarded as outsiders. Ruminating on the experiences of his fellow countrymen and women Gilbert reflects:

A devout Christian, Curtis was asked not to return to his local church for his skin was too dark to worship there. The shock rob him of his voice. Louis now believed bloodyforeigner to be all one word. For, like bosom pals, he only ever heard those words spoken together. And Hortense… fresh from a ship, England had not yet deceived her. But soon it will. (269)

Yet race is not the only marker of difference that unravels in this multifaceted novel; people from the country discriminate against city dwellers, upper class Londoners despise cockneys, and newly arrived immigrants look down their noses at white, working class women in particular. Levy lays bare the myth that London at war was a time of togetherness and understanding across social barriers and demonstrates that those cultural walls stood firm despite the bombs that rained upon the city.

Almost sixty years on from this initial contact, British culture is still changing as its shared society is subtly transformed by the ideals and ethos of new immigrants and non-white Britons. As with the first passengers on the SS Windrush, these ‘ethnic minorities’ bring with them a complex relationship of opportunity and disadvantage, with as many differences within and between different ethnic groups as can be found between them and the rest of the population – although all are under pressure to conform to the conventions of that dominant population). In moving with the times however, British society is exploring more fully its colonial memory and its multicultural reality and novels such as Small Island are a part of this exploration.

There has developed in Britain a new social group, comprising those who choose to go a step beyond traditional concepts of multiculturalism, embracing instead an ethnic ambiguity. Generation Ethnically Ambiguous, or Generation EA for short, has developed out of the almost one million young Britons identifying themselves as members of more than one race or of ‘no race’ in the most recent census (the first in which respondents could choose their ethnic origin). ‘Mixed Race’ is now the third largest ethnic minority group in Britain and is set to become the biggest over the next decade. The change has come as many black and Asian young people are rejecting the old ethnic labels as crude and passé, while many white youngsters are embracing so-called ‘black’ lifestyle and culture in fashion, music and language, creating a ‘blended’ youth. John Arlidge writes in the Observer newspaper that:

the transition from segregated cultures to multiracialism is now so marked that some believe the time has come to dismiss race altogether as a useful social indicator. (Observer, 4 Jan 2004).

Michael Eboda, editor of the black newspaper New Nation, (somewhat optimistically) concurs. In speaking in particular of Black British youth he claims that Britain is a multicultural country…’The barriers between black and white are really coming down’ (Observer, 4 Jan 2004).

Although many British writers, including Levy, are engaging with an evolving and highly multicultural Britain in terms of the variety of racial and ethnic groups, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Britain is still a racist and intolerant society. Among the majority of Britain’s white citizens, ethnicity is seen as an attribute belonging to others – a mentality that enables white Britons to assume a national norm. In Small Island, Bernard makes clear his feelings about the nature of Britishness:

The recipe for a quiet life is each to their own. The war was fought so people might live amongst their own kind. Quite simple. Everyone had a place. England for the English and the West Indies for these coloured people… I’ve got nothing against them in their place. But their place isn’t here (388).

Now, as then, Britain’s ‘ethnic’ communities experience a sense of exclusion from the identity ‘British’. As Susheila Nasta comments:

Many cultural critics and postcolonial scholars have already exposed the extent to which the myth of a homogeneous and white British nation, an ‘imagined community’, was part not only of the agenda of Empire, but of an insular Eurocentric modernity which has consistently failed to acknowledge the true colours of its immigrant past. For although heterogeneity has always been the norm, an indisputable part of the crucible of cultural and racial ‘mixture’ that has historically constructed British life, the nationalist myth of purity has nevertheless long endured (Nasta, 3).

Revelations that recent bombings in London were carried out by British men has forced increased debate around the meaning of ‘British’ identity – contemporary British culture is a complex beast, and it appears to be moving in many different directions at once. British society is undoubtedly ethnically diverse; a rich and varied mix of people living and working together to produce a new kind of ‘Britishness’, if such a thing exists. Whilst the media still produces headlines about ‘undeserving’ refugees and ‘fake’ asylum seekers and racism and discrimination are still rife, particularly outside the capital, Britain’s minority citizens are challenging their exclusion – community organisations, political mobilisation and the refusal of ethnic labels are some examples of the ways in which progress is being made.

Small Island traces the birth of the multi-ethnic diversity of modern Britain, tackling at the same time the fraught relationships that exist between the British ‘immigrant’ or ethnic group member and society as a whole. Racism – open and covert – is examined alongside the lack of forethought in both black and white communities in failing to anticipate the range of experiences of racial interaction. Levy brings together multiple voices in a narrative that is funny, satirical and compassionate. Her examination of culturally inflected experiences from a variety of angles feeds into the continuing discourses around race and class in Britain and aids in the development of new perspectives on Britain and on its literatures.

Andrea Levy, Small Island, New York: Picador, 2004

Rachel Slater is a freelance reviewer and is currently working on a PhD in contemporary women’s literature in the School of EMSAH at the University of Queensland.

Nasta, Susheila, Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

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