Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Holiday Reading for a Small Island

My holiday reading for my small island in the sun was ... Small Island by Andrea Levy.

Years ago, I remember a friend from the British Virgin Islands telling me about "island mentality" - how your whole world view is governed by the geography of the place where you grew up and how islanders have a naturally limited world view. The smaller the island, the smaller the mindset.

Which island is Levy writing about? There's Jamaica, geographically small, a far-flung outpost of the British Isles which nevertheless sends soldiers to fight for "the mother-country" in World War Two, and later provides an army of workers to fill the menial posts the British themselves eschew.

Then there's Britain, larger, but still an island. (As someone remarks in the book, everywhere else is overseas from Britain.) And the inhabitants defintely demonstrate a smallness of mind and a deeply entrenched prejudice against those with a different skin colour.

Small Island is the story of four characters: Gilbert who leaves Jamaica to join the RAF when war breaks out and finds himself stationed in Britain; Hortense, a prim and proper school teacher, a dyed-blue anglophile who marries Gilbert simply to fulfil her fantasy of living in Britain; their landlady, Queenie, a kindly and gregarious Englishwoman who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher's daughter to find herself married to a a dull banker; Bernard, her husband, who finds himself framed and disgraced in the war in India. Much of the joy of the book is the interplay of voices, as each character steps forward to tell their own story in an interweaving of past and (1948) present. (Read an extract here.)

I fell in love with Gilbert who speaks in a Jamaican patois (that reminded me of the West indian kids I used to teach) and read the parts of the book he narrated with a big smile on my face (especially the account of his cousin losing the bees that were supposed to net them a fortune). And there is gentle comedy in the growing love between Gilbert and Hortense that absolutely delights.

The novel was up for discussion at our reading group meeting a few nights ago, and of course, I couldn't attend because I was too busy having fun in Langkawi. Muntaj, who coordinates the group sent me an SMS: "We need you here to defend your race!" There's no defense that I can make when confronted with the kind of prejudice the book depicts - I think Levy probably got got it exactly right.

Would I recommend it?

Definitely. A very enjoyable read.


Lydia Teh said...

I love the book. It was unputdownable. If I had brought it along for a holiday, I would've ended up missing up on the holiday fun because I'd want to finish it immediately.

bibliobibuli said...

'unputdownable' is a good word for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recommending this book, I enjoyed it a lot but was dismayed to find that some of the folks in our book club didn't. I found it a funny book which reminded me a lot of the friends I spent time with when I studied in the UK. Definately delightful.