This book was the Black History Month book club pick in the office, organised by yours truly along with a colleague.
Our book club meeting was scheduled for the 5th of December and I have summarised some notes taken from that too.
by Andrea Levy
Synopsis by GoodReads
Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer’s daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.
Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers—in short, an encapsulation of the immigrant’s life.
Insight to the blitz and post-war Britain
Insight to Jamaican culture in Jamaica and in Britain
The difference between racism in Britain and in the US
This book was a very interesting window to post-war Britain and the racism that occurred during and after the war on all new settlers and volunteers from the empire.
The story is divided into five parts; “Before” for the 4 main characters, and from all during 1948. The story goes back and forths to 1948. It starts with 1948, then goes back and follows Hortense through to 1948, then follow all the characters in 1948 before going back to follow Gilbert and his journey through to 1948. Back to 1948 then Queenie then 1948 then Bernard than a final 1948.
I like the layout but I was surprised by Bernard’s “Before” chapters. the entire story doesn’t have much of him in it until his “before” it up.
The system gives you time to figure out who the characters are and why and how they got to be in London in 1948.
The story follows four main characters and as I mention is divided into 1948 and a “Before” for each individual.
Hortense is the first character we follow. Born golden brown to a darker brown maid, she is given away to her aunt and uncle for proper upbringing. Hortense is a fascinating person to me. She clearly does not see how she should behave at certain times and is very ignorant to her surroundings and how she affects other people. At the same time, she is very determined and strong. She would probably be categorised as an unlikeable character which is probably why I like her. Hortense is very unaware of the racism in post-war Britain and has some difficulty understanding it. It was very fascination to be inside her head.
Queenie is the second female character and is born to a butchers family in Lancashire. She is soft and ignorant and almost lives a bit in her own world. But she too is a strong and independent woman who still makes mistakes. I was not the biggest fan of her. I found her a bit weak and a bit shallow at times. She is one of the only white characters in the book who wasn’t racist. It was refreshing.
Gilbert is the first male character we encounter. He is the first to arrive in Britain during the war as a volunteer to the RAF to help his Mother Country. He has mixed experiences with the brits but still desires to move back after the war on Hortense’s encouragement. Gilbert experiences a lot of racist events and has a wide view of all of them. But he is wise and not hotheaded. This is also a great insight to who some people might deal with racist outbursts towards themselves.
Bernard is the last character we meet and I was actually surprised he had a part. He is Queenie’s husband whom she doesn’t love as much as he loves her. He gets lost after the war and is missing for most of the book. During the war, he is placed in India fighting the Japanese. He is a quiet and peculiar person who does not like non-whites apart from those he knows – it’s weird. Selective racism. I know these types of people actually exists but I still don’t understand them, nor do I like them. That is probably the main reason why I didn’t like him.
God no! It was still illegal during the 50s.
I very much enjoyed the writing. Most of Gilbert’s dialogue is writing in a talking voice so you get the Jamaican English style to it. It has a good effect on Gilbert as a character. There were also some bits in Bernards language that made him posher than the others.
I might pick up other books by Andrea Levy based on the writing. It was very well done.
Book Club Opinions
There were mixed opinions about the book. Most people felt it was a difficult book to read mainly due to the racism, but afterwards felt happy about having read it, and felt their knowledge be enriched.
No one apart from me liked Hortense 😂 Most people felt she was a cow or a nasty woman or something, but that is probably why I liked her. Also, everyone seemed to like Queenie apart from me 😂 There was hardly any comment about Gilbert, and everyone found Bernard weird and weak.
There was a long discussion about Queenie and if she was really racist or was just worried about what other people thought of her and her actions. Just FYI our book club is not a pure white group we are very mixed and therefore got several opinions about this. It was a very fascinating discussion.
We also had a long discussion on the ending which there seemed to be mixed feeling about.
For my first ever book club to host (and attended 😱) I felt it was a major success 😁 I do need to prepare better next time. If anyone has any tips to book club questions that are easy and anyone can have an opinion about please let me know in the comments 😁 Our next meeting will be in February so there is plenty of time.
I very much enjoyed it. It’s not the type of book I would pick up myself as it’s a bit too general of fiction and I’m more a fantasy and sci-fi girl.
If you are interested in post-war Britain and/or the Windrush generation, this book is definitely for you.
Have you read this? What did you think?