Andrea Levy: Small Island.

This story is told from the points of view of four main characters: Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard. The author was new to me, as usual, and for over half the book I thought here was an honest and competent novelist. But like nearly all writers, not one that made me want to read on. However, that changed when Bernard at last got his turn to speak for himself. This reader's change of heart reflected favorably on earlier passages - tho I maintain that riot scenes are hard to write convincingly.

Till taking up the story, Bernard had not seemed alive. Queenie's rather too objective description of the man found him objectionable. She married to get away from the butcher's farm and business. The author knows his business, as if she was familiar with it. That is to say she knows her business. Bernard's minor clerical demeanour singled him out as "a gentleman" to her aunt, the confectioner, with a weakness for sugar-iced coconut. His unromantic little traits are writ large because there is nothing big about his character to dismiss them.
A strength of the book is the clash of out-looks from the characters successively taking up the narration, so that they are seen jarringly both as persons and as aliens.

The second world war gives Bernard a feeling of release from clerical routine. There is no corresponding mental release. Yet Andrea Levy does not pass a final judgment on her creation. Right till the end, one cannot finally say whether the man is completely lost to his prejudices, or even quite whether he has finally lost the glamorous Queenie. Certainly, once the narration reverts from Bernard, he seems to lose again such humanity as the divulgence of his personal thoughts afforded.

His bigoted antagonisms tend to blot him out as an individual, even when he is the narrator. The author does not treat him as an enemy. He is more like the carrier of a moral disease. The disease or discomfort is largely dormant, aroused by the irruption of people of other races into his life. Bernard typified the belief that the cure was for immigrants from other races to go back. It is easier to put other people out than to change one's out-look.
And thru minor characters, racial prejudice is so common-place as to form a theme of this novel of the nineteen-thirties and forties. Fighting for a common cause was not enough to remove condescension when it came to training for qualifications and employment.

Racial antagonism may have something to do with the animal fear of the unknown. Animals panic at the slightest unusual thing in their environment. Recently, I had to stand up so that a young mare, spooked by the wind, could see who was lurking on the ground. "Hello Poppy, Hello Poppy", I urged her past.
I grew up in a one-color society. Many years after this began to change, the unexpected sight of another racial color could still make me jump out of my skin. "Get used to it," as they say.

Naturally, this reader would relate mostly to Bernard, the greyy dull little man - except he turns out not that little. That doesnt mean to say I dont know convincing if exotic characterisation. Tho, not until a minor character speaks with politely sly sarcasm to Bernard of British rule in India did I re-assess the writers gift for conversation. Another minor character, a "ruffian" and "buffoon", Kenneth, the twin that cannot be told physically from his better self, is nicely voiced out.

Kenneth, finishing his story, look on me for some response. Oh boy. I lift me head and think to make a joke when I ask him, 'Is that all?'

My heart take up residence in me boots when he tell me, 'Well, I maybe have told him that his wife seem to like the company of black men. Maybe. I cannot remember. Plenty things said in the heat of the situation.'...

'Why you do that, Kenneth?'

'Is what I do?'

Kenneth is talking to Gilbert. He and Hortense, from Jamaica, are the other partners in the first-person narration, besides Queenie and Bernard. Both partnerships are marriages of convenience that try to make a go of it. I dont want to say too much about that, because it is part of the enjoyment of the novel to see how the relationships are going to turn out. We see how first impressions can be influential but misleading, in the case of Gilbert. Hortense is held up like a colonial mirror to the British Empire. An intelligent, capable pupil of its instruction, she naively takes in its values. So, her "insufferable" snootiness is comical rather than really dislikable.

All the same it is a relief sometimes to switch to another narrator. And perhaps the most enjoyable part of the story is how the author develops her character, especially in relation to Gilbert's genial nature, as she goes thru the lessons of life, rather than the class-room of an imperial out-post. The meeting with English education authority will evoke none of the surprise from readers that we can see is coming for Hortense. It is too pitiable to relish her come-uppance.

One of my main grumbles to a reader's group is that modern novels dont know how to create characters or do big themes. "Small Island" is one of the exceptions.

Richard Lung
October 2005.

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