Orange Prize Challenge #7: ‘Small Island’

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Well, July has come to an end. I didn’t read the ten books I’d planned on for the Orange Prize challenge, but I got through seven, with the last one being Andrea Levy‘s “Small Island.” I’m really glad this was my last book, because I’d heard a lot about it, and while I didn’t love it, it certainly gave me a lot to think about and question as I was reading.

The plot is quite simple: Gilbert, a young Jamaican man, marries Hortense (also from Jamaica) and brings her to England where he boards at a white woman’s house after fighting in World War II. Queenie, the woman who owns the house, has started renting rooms to black people who have nowhere else to go after her husband never returns from war. The novel explores the hateful attitude the English gave towards colored people from their colonies settling there after having fought for England in the war.

I really loved the multiple perspectives of the book — we get to see all three main characters and even Queenie’s long-lost husband towards the end — but it was also one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. Levy is a magnificent writer, who knows how to use language for the most emotional punch, but I feel like she made the wrong storytelling choices here. Every time we enter into a different character’s perspective, we get their story from before Hortense moved to England in the story’s present-day of 1948. Frankly, I was bored at points with the characters’ back stories and wanted more of what was going on in England at that time.

I wanted to hear more about how Hortense deals with the culture shock, how Gilbert and Hortense get along being married, how Queenie reacts to her neighbors’ rage at her taking in black people, etc… Instead every time the present story gets going, we’re ripped into the past, a past that we could parcel together from the characters themselves. I didn’t need 50 pages to know that Queenie was never in love with her husband Bernard; that was apparent from the thought, “Bernard would never do anything half so interesting.”

Because of this focus on each character’s past, by the time we get to the climax of the novel (which I won’t give away), I was confused as to how the story had gotten here so quickly, since there were very few pages devoted to the actual story going on right under Levy’s nose.

I would recommend giving this book a shot, however, simply because I had no idea about these circumstances after World War II. There’s an interesting part about how it’s the Americans that cause the division because they bring their ideals about segregation over during the war infecting the English white men. I loved one part where Gilbert is talking about being stared at like a circus freak, simply because of the color of his skin (I thought how women get stares like that everyday simply for being women regardless of race). I also thought Levy was an incredible writer, and I’d like to read “The Long Song” that she published last year.

So now that my Orange Prize challenge is over, I’ll be moving on to the Art of the Novella Challenge, starting tomorrow. NonSuch Book will be hosting the challenge, with Melville House Publishingsponsoring her (and they’re offering prizes!). I want to get to the level of Bibliomaniac with her, but I doubt I will. My minimum goal is to get to Fanatical (27 of 42 novellas), and I’ll be starting with James Joyce‘s “The Dead” and Anton Chekhov‘s “My Life.” Since they’re so short, I’ll probably do a weekly roundup of how far I’ve gotten. Stay tuned!


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