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Literature / Small Island

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Small Island is a 2004 novel by Andrea Levy. It is set mainly in Britain in 1947-48, and examines the experiences of Jamaican immigrants dealing with an unfamiliar culture and a considerable amount of racism, as well as the relationship between British colonies and their 'mother country'. Notable for its multi-perspective, nuanced examination of racist attitudes and its detailed portrayal of post-war Britain, it was chosen by the Guardian as one of the 50 defining books of the last decade, and adapted into a BBC miniseries in 2009.

The novel is written from the perspective of four main characters:

  • Queenie, a British woman who takes in Jamaican lodgers after her husband fails to return from the Second World War, and has an affair with a Jamaican man which eventually produces a mixed-race baby, Michael.
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  • Bernard, Queenie's husband, an RAF mechanic who is stationed in India and experiences some of the violence caused by the Muslim-Hindu conflicts, which leaves him with a very negative attitude to 'coolies' and coloured people in general. He is not happy when he eventually returns to his wife and finds four Jamaican lodgers living in his house.
  • Gilbert, a Jamaican airman who met Queenie while he was in Britain during the war and rents a room from her when he returns a year later. He dreams of becoming a lawyer, although with no access to higher education he is stuck working as a driver for the post office.
  • Hortense, Gilbert's new wife, who considers herself a cut above him, Queenie, and almost everyone else she meets because of having been brought up as a lady and trained as a teacher. Life as an immigrant facing racism and poverty, therefore, comes as rather a shock.

The novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Love Is Unrequited: In Hortense's backstory, she is sent to live/work with the family of a wealthy acquaintance, growing up with her son Michael who she in time falls madly in love with. However, though she believes the two to be in a sweet young courtship, it in increasingly clear that not only does he have no interest in her, but the things she sees as flirtatious teasing - scoffing at her less expensive education - are actually genuine signs he doesn't think highly of her: implied heavily to be because he is light skinned and comes from a well-to-do family, while she is dark skinned and comes from poor origins. Even after he is caught having an affair with a married white woman ( the first time, at least), she never understands that he was never loved her.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Gilbert's flashbacks note a instance where, after helping Queenie find her PTSD-ridden father in law, she treats him to a lunch at a tea shop. However, this "date" happens within full view of a trio of racist, brutish GIs, who begin to watch the duo and - to Gilbert's horror - become increasingly murderous and violent at the sight of a black man and white woman sharing a meal. They are just barely saved from a potentially deadly attack by chance, all while Queenie remains entirely unaware of the danger.
  • Backstory: The present part of the novel is Britain in 1947-8, but all four main characters at some point tell at least some of their life story, to the extent that a significant proportion of the book actually takes place in Jamaica during Gilbert and Hortense's early lives.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gilbert and Hortense must leave Queenie's house due to a combination of the grim events surrounding Queenie's mixed race son's birth and Bernard's unwillingness to compromise his racism even after everything, but end up living in better lodgings and moving to a potentially happy life with one another. Queenie will move to the suburbs with Bernard and start a farm, a fate she makes very clear she despises, her friendship with Gilbert is in an unsalvageable shambles, and she gives up her son, knowing that Bernard will never accept him, but the son likewise may have a better future with Gilbert and Hortense, and her clear disdain for the man Bernard is after the war may mean their marriage is not to last.
  • Bookends: Not of the actual book, but with regards to Hortense and Gilbert's relationship: her asking 'Just this?' contrasts her horror at his expecting her to live in one shabby room and her delight at the house he has managed to acquire for them, and similarly her dissatisfaction at being stuck with a husband she sees as a selfish, uncouth failure and her recognition that he is actually an intelligent man who's good fun to be around and is doing his best to provide for them.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Hortense, from Gilbert's point of view. He considers it quite a milestone when she deigns to laugh at one of his jokes.
  • Dramatic Irony: Hortense almost finds out that the Jamaican soldier that Queenie met after Gilbert and had an affair with is the same Michael Roberts she had long pined after, as well as baby Michael's namesake, but the conversation ends just before that point. She even ends she story raising Michael's child as her own son, but never finds out.
  • Ethnic Menial Labour: Gilbert is restricted to this because nobody considers black people capable of doing skilled work, both when he's in the RAF and restricted to being a driver, and when he returns to London, and the only job he can get is as a driver. In both cases, he absolutely hates it.
  • The Ingenue: Hortense shows shades of this, despite mostly being assertive and an independent thinker; notably, after she and Gilbert are married, she not only refuses to have sex with him but seems shocked that he would want to do such a thing.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Hortense and Gilbert's marriage starts more like a business deal, with them tying the knot within weeks of knowing each other because each hastily needed something from the union (Hortense, for example, is jumping on the opportunity to move to England). However, when Hortense arrives in London they both still expect certain things that are typical of a real marriage nonetheless, and they do legitimately fall in love over the course of the novel.
  • Meaningful Name: Queenie, a white woman who is happy to take in coloured people from the colonies and teach them how to fit in with British culture, but can't entirely free herself of racist attitudes, is representative of post-war Britain in general. Her name points to this: Queenie (real name Victoria) referring to the royal family, and her surname, Bligh, to the slang term 'Blighty' for Britain.
  • Moral Myopia: A great deal of it, as it is a novel about racism. Shown most obviously with Bernard, the most overly racist character whose perspective we see: after arriving home, he does little but disrespect and threaten the Jamaican tenants in the boarding house, believing them beneath him, while getting both annoyed when they become offended and deeply offended himself when they return in kind.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: As Queenie and Bernard aren't sleeping together, she manages to hide her pregnancy literally until she goes into labour right in front of him.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: Several of the scenes involving Americans in Gilbert's wartime flashbacks, due to the difference between American and British racism as Gilbert sees it: while the British authority he experiences is patronizing and suppresses blacks on the belief that they all are primitive, the Americans he meets are openly hostile and all but described as inherently violent and dangerous to be around. Many of Gilbert's stories involve him first having to deal with some soul-crushing manner of racism from the British, only to face even worse dismissal or even physical threat when he then has to deal with Americans.
  • Proper Lady: Hortense insists on being one. It's partly as an attempt to fit in with what she's been taught about Britain, but it turns out that the British characters tend to be significantly less polite, formal, or well-dressed.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Of a sort. While their marriage is initially essentially only a business arrangement (Hortense needs a husband to socially justify her travelling to London, and isn't too fixated on Gilbert herself, while he needs her money to do so), what initially draws her to him is the fact that he very much resembled her First Love Michael.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Michael for Queenie, also an example of Dead Guy Junior.
  • White Man's Burden: Touched on. Many of the white characters consider that Britain has done its colonies a favour by bringing them civilisation - a prevailing attitude at the time - and so do some of the Jamaicans. The concept is also mocked by an Indian soldier Bernard meets, who talks very cheerfully and politely about all of the great things Britain has brought to India, such as the Taj Mahal...oh, wait...