” I was a giant living on land no bigger than the soles of my shoes. Everywhere I turn I gazed on sea. The palm trees that tourists thought rested so beautiful on every shore were my prison bars. Horizons my tormenting borders. I envied the pelican, I envied the crow—with wings they could fly easy from this place to rest in some other. ” (Ch.18, p.173)
Small Island tells a very cracking story set, mainly, in post-war London. It follows a white couple and a black couple—men and women trying to lead ordinary lives after the war in 1948. Hortense Joseph, a haughty but well-educated young woman, arrives in London from Jamaica to meet her husband, Gilbert Joseph. A native Jamaican who served as an airman in the RAF, Gilbert returns from war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. He was among thousands of West Indians who believed in the Mother Country. When Hortense arrives, aspiring to become a teacher so she can rise above her race, she is dismayed that Gilbert has set up home in a miserable bedsit in Earl’s Court, hosted by Queenie Bligh.
Luck is a funny thing. To some only a large win of money at the pools is luck . . . So let me tell you what luck is for a coloured man who is just off a boat in England. It is finding Queenie Bligh. It is seeing she has a big house and is happy to take me and a few of the boys in the lodgers. (Ch.21, p.184)
Queenie is the kind, sympathetic working-class woman who has befriended Gilbert and stuck out for him in a vicious brawl that records some of the most unpleasant racist aspects of the period in British history. Taking in coloured tenants, Queenie is single-handedly responsible for ruining an all-white neighborhood. Her husband, Bernard, has been absent for two years after the war ended and she hears no news from him. When Gilbert and Queenie are involved in a wartime incident where the US army attempts to impose a segregated seating plan in a local cinema, Bernard is involved in a mutiny in India, where the natives fight for who should have power when a new India emerges.
England had shrunk. It was smaller than the place I’d left. Streets, shops, houses bore down like crowds, stifling even the feeble light that got through. I had to stare out at the sea just to catch a breath. And behind every face I saw were trapped the rememberings of war. Guarded by a smile. Shrouded in a frown. But everyone had them. Private conflicts. (Ch.46, p.350)
As much as the novel seems to addresses race, prejudice, and identity, Small Island is far from being just a novel about racism. Whereas the black couple suffers discrimination, the white couple riles in private conflicts. Beleaguered and bewildered, Bernard returns from war feeling like he’s stumbled into someone else’s existence by mistake and is frantically trying to find his part. Mutual secrets alienate husband and wife—and the revelations, overshadowed by moral and racial considerations, challenge our convention that life is not just black or white, but exists in every shade of grey. Most importantly, they threaten to split Queenie’s world apart again.
There are some words that once spoken will split the world in two. There would be the life you breathed them and then the altered life after they’d been said. They take a long time to find, words like that. They make you hesitate. Choose with care. Hold on to them unspoken for as long as you can just so your world will stay intact. (Ch.55, p.407)
Lucy has a respectable handle on language, but she is heavy-handed on the back story. Juggling four narrative voices, she creates a style that reproduces the rhythm and content of her characters’ speech. The book is truthful about the crucial period of England in which the empire is on the exit and multiculturalism is on the rise. In a novel about barriers of racial prejudice, where mutual incomprehension seems the rule, I appreciate how characters seem unknown to each other. Hortense is not aware that she and Queenie once liked the same man. Hortense is blinded by her condescending view of Gilbert. Finally, Queenie’s apparent small-mindedness seems less evident when we find out, from her own account, of her affair with a tenant who is staying in her house while her husband is serving in the army in India.
440 pp. Picador Original. Paper. [Read/
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