08 June 2014

Small Island

Synopsis from Goodreads: Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer's daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.

Told in these four voices, SMALL ISLAND is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers---in short, an encapsulation of the immigrant's life.

Stats for my copy: Trade paperback, published by Picador, 2005; received through Book Mooch.

First line: I thought I'd been to Africa.

My thoughts: Written in first person POV, with the narration alternating between the four main characters, the author did a wonderful job of giving each character a distinctive voice and personality, drawing us into his or her story completely.

Gilbert joins the West Indian RAF, eager to defend the Mother Country, which he loves without reservation. He gets a brief trip to America, which he is eager to see. He's impressed with the vast abundance of food available to the military there, but puzzled by how he and his fellow Jamaican citizens are treated differently, better, than the black people in America. Once in his beloved Mother Country, he is astounded to realize that its residents know nothing about Jamaica.
You British?” one of them finally asked.
Yes”, I said.
I hope I don't cause offence if I tell you that to my eye you don't look British. You must be rare as a sunbeam in a cave.”
I am from Jamaica.”
Jamaica, England?”
Had no one outside the Caribbean ever heard of Jamaica? (pg 129)

After the war is over, Gilbert and Hortense marry in Jamaica, and he travels back to England to look for work and find a place to live, sending for Hortense to join him six months later. She arrives expecting to be immersed in culture and class, and live in a nice house with a fancy doorbell. She is not expecting a single dirty room in an old house with a nosy white landlady who goes to market dressed in what appear to be her bedclothes. Hortense was a teacher in Jamaica, and expects to teach in England as well, but those hopes are quickly dashed. She and Gilbert didn't marry Gilbert for love, but for the chance to immigrate. The sections of story narrated by Gilbert and Hortense were my favorite. They are both fascinating and appealing characters, motivated by a desire for a better life in a country they've been brought up to love and respect, but which looks down on them because of the color of their skin.

Except for people like Queenie. When the war ended, her husband did not return, and she began renting out rooms in their home to support herself. Despite the disapproval and disdain of her neighbors, she gladly rents rooms to not only Gilbert and Hortense, but to another Jamaican immigrant as well. Queenie's and Bernard's sections of narration were still engrossing, but I didn't feel quite as embedded or invested in their lives as with Gilbert and Hortense.

The author's writing is very evocative, with just the right amount of humor and lightness thrown in among the serious topics.
Madam,” I began, but she was gone, rattling through the crowd like a laxative. (pg 157)

Racism is the prevalent theme, treated with both dignity and matter of factness, a way of life that each character reacted to differently. Bernard is the least visible character, and the least likable, though in the end he shows unexpected compassion and strength. When the end of the book came, I was left wanting more, having questions that still needed answers. A secret was revealed, which provided a link between two characters that was not resolved to my satisfaction. But that's a part of life, right?

A beautifully written and thought provoking look at a country and it's people torn apart by and then putting themselves back together after a war. Read it. 

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