Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Actually I read this book a few weeks ago for book club. If I remember correctly, everyone enjoyed the book, although some of us (myself included) found the beginning with its extended flashback a little slow. The main narrative takes place in 1948 and weaves together the stories of two couples: Hortense and Gilbert, who have emigrated from Jamaica, and Queenie and Bernard, whose English middle-class life has been disrupted by the war.

We found the treatment of race particularly interesting, the almost unconscious racism Hortense encountered in trying to find a teaching job, the contrast of Gilbert’s experience as a member of the RAF with his treatment after he was demobilised, the way U.S. soldiers behaved toward Gilbert as a British soldier versus the way they behaved toward their own compatriots of color, Hortense’s own prejudice against darker-skinned people.

What I liked best about this book was the language. Levy manages to capture the feeling of dialects—Jamaican and English—in a natural way, without mimicking them (something that will make me put down a book). She uses word choice, the rhythm of the language and occasional characteristic interjections to convey the peculiar voices of her characters.

Another area that we found interesting was the generational effects of war. Levy juxtaposes Bernard’s experience in WWII with his father’s in WWI. Both came back changed. This period—the end of WWII—is not one that I’ve read much about. However, I have thought a lot about what happens after a war is over. How do you come back? I think there is no way to come back from an experience like the Dust Bowl or the Somme except like Piero della Francesca’s Christ. That hard resurrection. That devastated face. You come back with something broken, something hardened. And the guilt of being the one who comes back.

How do you live among the ruins? At the end of WWII, England struggled with many challenges: the country’s impoverishment from the war effort, the destruction of London from the blitz, the loss of empire. As an American, I wonder where a country finds its identity when it is no longer the most powerful country in the world. I think about Spain and Turkey in the 16th century, The Netherlands in the 17th century, Austria in the 18th century, England in the 19th century. I think about Italy, what it must be like for a Roman citizen to go out in the morning and walk past the ruins of the forum, to live with the reminder of how great your country once was.

In The English Nation: The Great Myth Edwin Jones says that—despite its treasured images of bulldog individualism—England for centuries defined itself as part of a community of nations. Before Henry VIII cut ties with Catholicism and Catholic nations, England was fully integrated into the life and culture of Europe. Jones suggests that a return to community building could transform England. I have to echo his plea for a renewed commitment to the common good. It’s needed to balance the individualism that drives so much of the U.S. as well. It’s needed to check the capitalism that creates a Dust Bowl or writes people off as unnecessary in a post-industrial economy. It’s needed to find solutions for the extreme poverty that afflicts so much of the world and sends immigrants on journeys such as Hortense’s and Gilbert’s. We just have to look beyond our small selves.

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