Click here to read reviewer Shannon Bigham's take on Small Island.
This unique novel of the immigrant experience is a collection of fascinating personalities trapped by their own assumptions, often clashing with the reality of the world they live in. Through alternating chapters, pre- and post-World War II, Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard, speak to their own concerns, their particular needs colored by racial proclivities.
In Jamaica, Hortense marries Gilbert Joseph, who has trained in America to fight in World War II for the British forces. Settled after the war in England, his bride yet to arrive from the island of their birth, Gilbert is by turns disappointed and enraged by the shameless prejudice that follows him through the streets of London.
Forced to take in boarders after her husband, Bernard, fails to return from duty in a timely manner, Queenie Bligh has no idea what has happened to the dour and silent man, but she is determined to survive. Enjoying a short dalliance with a Jamaican soldier who brings light into her otherwise dismal life, Queenie has no problem renting to the Jamaicans who cannot find housing in 1948 London, including Gilbert.
When Hortense arrives at Queenie’s boardinghouse after Gilbert fails to meet her ship, the two women meet but are congenitally unable to communicate, Hortense insulted that her English can’t be understood and Queenie speaking to Gilbert’s wife as though she is learning-impaired. Inevitably, Bernard returns, incensed at his wife’s changes and demanding that the boarders leave. But there are more serious complications to be resolved before Queenie relinquishes her authority to an absentee husband.
Here is human prejudice in all its forms: white against black, black distrusting white, Hitler decimating the Jewish population, India preparing for self-rule but torn by civil conflict. Gilbert cannot fathom how Bernard might think himself better than others, while Bernard still ruminates on the brown faces he witnessed in Calcutta, where he was surrounded by otherness, protected from chaos only by his nationality.
The English, beaten down by incessant German bombings, are hard-put to open their minds to racial equality, a condition further exacerbated by the natural British assumption of superiority. The Jamaicans, proud by nature, refuse to be subjected to the same insults heaped upon American blacks, who suffer racial stereotyping and similar daily cruelties.
Color creates a barrier for these characters, but more telling, the idiomatic Jamaican and English languages hinder easy communication that may have resolved many of the issues between them. As each protagonist reveals intimate thoughts and secret dreams, all cling desperately for purchase in a drastically changing world. Out of this strange brew, the author mixes together flawed people defined by their experiences, inhabitants of their small islands, forced to work out problems and make peace with their differences.