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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:

  • 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.
  • Book-Ends: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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...

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