Small Island tells the tale of four people before, during and after World War II, and deals with issues of racism, family and love. Queenie Bligh’s husband Bernard went off to fight in the war and by 1948 still hasn’t returned. Queenie has no idea where he is, or even if he is dead or alive. To help make ends meet she has taken in lodgers, one of whom is Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican man who fought for Britain in the war. Queenie’s neighbours are outraged that she is allowing black lodgers into her home, but Queenie herself is more tolerant. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, an educated and snobbish woman comes to Britain to join her husband and fulfil her dreams of a big house in the beautiful countryside, but the reality is very different. She is living in one cramped and dirty room, in a neighbourhood where she is unwelcome because of her colour – and she is discovering that she does not really like – or even know – her husband.
The tales of these characters, and a fourth character of Queenie’s husband Bernard, are interwoven beautifully. The story is gripping and entirely believable. The scenes of both blatant and casual racism are disturbing and shocking to read (the casual racism sometimes more so than the blatant). The hypocrisy of human nature, as well as the strengths of individuals, is also well depicted.
All four characters take it in turns to narrate the story, and the narrative switches from ‘Before’ (the war) and 1948, which is the present day in the story. However, it never becomes confusing, and each character is distinct and fully fleshed out. Queenie and Gilbert are the most sympathetic characters (to me anyway), while I found it difficult to warm to Bernard. Hortense was possibly the most interesting however, and the viewer is taken from her early dreams to her shock that gradually comes over her as she discovers – as Gilbert did months earlier – that black faces are not welcome in Britain, although many black people fought for Britain in the war.
The ending was excellent, and really brought all the threads together. There were a few surprises at the conclusion, but all of them fitted in well with the story.
The book won the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2005. I am not surprised in the least at the acclaim it received. Without hesitation I would recommend this book.
(Author’s website can be found here.)