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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

"Small Island" by Andrea Levy

This is a book about the experience of Jamaicans coming to London after the Second World War. It describes their shock and distress at the shabbiness of the Mother Country but particularly at the anger and hatred they encounter, and racism little short of apartheid. Yet through it all, as their naivete is stripped away, even though they might lose their temper, though they might cry, they preserve their essential goodness.

The trouble is that this dissipates some of the force of the book. Horrid ugly things are described, endemic racism, ignorance from the few well-intentioned, wickedness from the majority. Yet Gilbert and Hortense cope. He wants to be a lawyer; he drives a van for the post office and no other postie will accompany him on his rounds. He should feel disgusted; he should rage. And because he doesn't I didn't either.

The book is written from four points of view:
  • Gilbert, a Jamaican who fights in World War II for the RAF and then emigrates to London on the Windrush. He is naive and bewildered when he encounters racist hostility but he is fundamentally good and his sense of humour carries him through the most trying times.
  • Hortense, a mixed race Jamaican, the illegitimate child of a white man and a mother who was shipped away. She is brought up to expect the good things in life and she is shocked when she arrives in England as Gilbert's wife; she knows nothing about men and sex, she knows nothing about cooking; she thinks she will get a job as a teacher and is distraught to be told that her hard-won Jamaican qualifications count for nothing.
  • Queenie, the butcher's daughter who, desiring better than the slaughterhouse, goes to London and, after surviving the blitz but husbandless, becomes landlady to Gilbert and Hortense. She is very much like Hortense in that, as a girl, she is brought up to be too delicate and to be naive about men; her husband's love-making leaves her cold.
  • Bernard, Queenie's lacklustre bank clerk of a husband who cares for his shell-shocked father and then goes to India as a mechanic with the RAF; his war career is one long mishap. Bernard thinks mostly in sentence fragments.
There are many great lines, though almost all of the ones I have selected as my special favourites come from Gilbert

  • You touch an angel with white glove it come up black.” (C 2)
  • I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture.” (C 11)
  • We Jamaicans, knowing our island is one of the largest in the Caribbean, think ourselves sophisticated men of the world. Better than the ‘small islanders’ whose universe only runs a few miles in either direction before it falls into the sea.” (C 11)
  • Pure imagination was needed to see how in peacetime English families could actually enjoy a holiday at this woebegone place.” (C 12)
  • Elwood showed me to his truck. Part metal, part rubber but mostly held together with prayer.” (C 12)
  • Bread so plentiful the five thousand could have invited family and all would have been fed.” (C 14)
  • Pour it back in the mule is what I say about tea.” (C 14)
  • Dreamboats ... with fingernails that still carried soil from home, and eyes that crossed with any attempt at reading. Heartthrobs ... who dated their very close relatives and knew cattle as their mental equal.” (C 17)
  • I know trouble. When it come through the door, it place a hand round a delicate part and squeeze.” (C 49)
  • Nothing is a smile ... You no cry over nothing.” (C 51)


Hortense has her moments:

  • The principal was making her entrance, parting girls to her left, to her right, like Moses through the Red Sea.” (C 4)
  • She walked with dainty yet lumbering steps - full of feminine grace that nevertheless shook the floor beneath us.” (C 4)
  • If you were second, third, or a deliberately dawdling fourth, then the chocolate would not only be cold but have a skin on it so thick it could be stitched into a hat.” (C 4)
  • "These two boys, Leonard and Clinton, looked so alike I puzzled on the need for both of them to exist.” (C 6)
  • I would not presume to tell the Lord His business but, come, the laying of an egg by a hen was, without doubt, the more civilized method of creation.” (C 53)


So does Bernard:

  • Maybe the threads of that fraying cloth was still in a tangle.” (C 57)
On Thursday 27th June 2019 I watched a live broadcast of the National Theatre production of Small Island. The stage adaptation was very faithful to the book, except that the story was told in a more or less chronological sequence whereas the book jumps around a lot. Thus the opening scene of the novel (Hortense turning up at Gilbert's room in Queenie's house in London after the war) becomes the opening scene of the second half of the play, after the interval. Otherwise much was the same although they changed the nature of Bernard's wartime experience.

The acting was first class and the growing fondness between Gilbert and Hortense after what was very much a marriage of convenience (at least for Hortense) was superbly portrayed.

Watching the stage adaptation offered me the chance to reflect on the story:

  • Why is Bernard's war-time experience related? This is a substantial chunk of the book and was reduced to a few lines of retrospective spoken by Bernard. But why bother with it at all? We are told the the reason why Queenie lets her house to 'coloured people' is that Bernard has failed to return after the war (this at least is the excuse that Queenie uses but later a more compelling reason is suggested). We therefore need a reason why Bernard doesn't come straight home but 'goes missing' for a crucial and carefully calculated period of time. But simple post-war trauma would have been sufficient for this without going into any details.
  • Why is Queenie made to grow up on a Lincolnshire farm? The location means that she can meet Gilbert during the war when she escapes from London for a while but it would have been relatively easy for her to meet Gilbert in London. But we do have to find a compelling motivation why Queenie, a very lively young woman, would have married a dry old stick like Bernard; the threatened alternative of having to go back to the farm provides this motivation.
  • This then raises the question of whether there was a similar motivation provided for Hortense and Gilbert to have been so eager to leave Jamaica. Given how tough they found London, why didn't they simply go back to Jamaica as soon as they possibly could? Queenie's background was compellingly horrid but Jamaica seems less of a place to escape from.

This production rose admirably to the challenges of giving birth on stage and having a baby on stage as well as the need to have multiple sets. Nevertheless, a film adaptation of the book cannot be far away.

The Lonely Londoners and its sequel Moses Ascending by Sam Selvon are brilliant short novels about the experience of Caribbean post-war immigrants to London

June 2019; 530 pages

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