SmallIslandFebruary 2007

Prize-winning novels do not always live up to our expectations but this month’s choice – the much-hyped Small Island – drew admiration from all our readers. It won Andrea Levy the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004 and is being promoted throughout libraries in Britain this year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery.

The book explores a point in England’s past when the demographic map began to change irreversibly, with the arrival of the First wave of Jamaican immigrants on board the Windrush. It is 1948, the country is still recovering from war and among the new arrivals is Gilbert Joseph, who had fought with the RAF to defend his ‘mother-country’. However, on his return to England as a civilian, he finds himself treated very differently. The story unfolds through the eyes of Gilbert, his wife Hortense, their landlady, Queenie and her husband, Bernard. Levy handles the themes of empire, prejudice, war and love with a superb lightness of touch and at times, a great sense of humour. She juggles the four voices with an even- handedness, which allows the good and bad aspects of their characters to shine through.

The race issue is, of course, the central theme of the book and several among us were amazed to leam of the rigorous segregation in the American forces, to the point where they were allocated separate days on which they could visit local towns. But what Miss Levy highlights so poignantly is the wide gulf between the expectations of the immigrants and the shocking racism they encounter when they first come to Britain. They had been raised with the ideals of Empire and freedom, but the reality was that the ‘mother-country’ was cold and unwelcoming and ignorance and prejudice conspired to keep them subjected.

Multi-culturalism is a hot topic at the moment and our discussion was wide-ranging, uncovering some of our own inbuilt prejudices in the process – it is good to stop and look in the mirror!

Our next meeting is on 8th March, when wc will be discussing Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black.

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