This novel by Andrea Levy was the first of her books I read. I’ve read others since but it is this book that stuck in my mind for a long time after I read it.
Four characters are central to the story. Two are white British whose lives are disrupted by the Second World War. Bernard and Queenie are married but the marriage is not an easy one. When the war separates them, this brings opportunities as well as upset. The other two main characters are Black Jamaicans who come to Britain in 1948 as part of the immigration that the country encouraged as part of post war recovery. Hortense and Gilbert are married, too, but their marriage is one of convenience to enable them both to make the journey. For Gilbert, this is not his first visit to Britain. He served in the RAF during the war and his and Queenie’s paths had crossed before.
The story switches between 1948 when Gilbert and Hortense adjust to married life in London and the Second World War. The racism faced by the new arrivals and the hostility shown to Queenie when she, so obviously, refuses to treat Black people with disdain are well handled. Britain was a society that encouraged immigration yet seemed threatened by the strangers in their midst.
A fifth character, Michael, connects Queenie and Hortense in a way that is revealed to the reader but not to the characters themselves. An interracial relationship provides the denouement for this wonderful novel.
One of the most affecting parts of the story took place during the Second World War. When Gilbert and Queenie attempt to spend an afternoon’s diversion at the cinema they find that the American GIs have imposed a segregated seating plan to suit their own purposes. The fact that this seems alien to the British way of doing things should be a source of pride but, as Andrea Levy shows, Britain had caught up in the racist stakes by 1948.
‘Small Island’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?