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Small Island by Andrea Levy

The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she. Ragged, old and dusty as the long dead. Mother has a blackened eye, bad breath and one lone tooth that waves in her head when she speaks. Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of?

Not owning a TV, I completely missed the recent BBC adaptation of this, so if any of you have seen it I'd love to hear your thoughts as I'm tempted now to seek it out, having thoroughly enjoyed the original novel. Small Island deals with, among other things, the disenchanting experiences of Jamaican immigrants arriving in the UK after the Second World War; these new arrivals roll off the boat bursting with optimistic clich├ęs about the warm welcome they would receive from their proud mother country but face instead only poverty and racism from the still-recovering inhabitants of a war-ravaged country. The action unrolls through the very disparate voices of the novel's four main characters, the Jamaicans, ex-serviceman Gilbert and his haughty new wife, Hortense; and the two main white characters, the refreshingly open-minded Queenie and her staid husband Bernard. What I particularly appreciated about Levy's narrative is the way that all four of these characters have their moments of greatness and their moments of behaving frustratingly, misguidedly and downright badly. In other words, all four of the protagonists seem very human, which is probably the most important message of all. Too many novels that are essentially about race-relations seem to simply the issue down to portray all members of one ethnic group as victims, the other perpetrators. True, there are some shocking incidents of racism depicted in this book but Levy's complex and considerate narrative never allows her readers to fall prey to the same oversimplified black and white logic embraced by too many characters in the novel itself.

Small Island should, by rights, be a much more depressing read than it is. There's so much horror, sadness and prejudice in this novel but at the same time Levy weaves through her action a wonderfully light touch of humour. The quadruple narrative technique also finds multiple characters detailing the same event and their differing perspectives can be equally tragic or hilarious, sometimes both in disturbingly close proximity. This provided an interesting contrast to the Ishiguro novel I read before it which deals with the Japanese experience of the same time period. So much fiction and memoir is set during the Second World War that I found it has been a refreshing change to read things dealing so vividly with the difficult post-war years.

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September 2010

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