‘Small Island’ is set in 1948, and focuses on the experience of Jamaican immigrants who, have left the Caribbean for what they hope will be a better life in England, the “Mother Country” for which the men have fought during the 2nd World War.
It is told through the alternate voices of 4 main characters Hortense and her husband Gilbert from Jamaica, their landlady Queenie and her husband Bernard, although the plot turns on the interracial relationship between Queenie and Michael Roberts, a Jamaican airman who grew up with Hortense. There was some confusion as the plot moves back and forth in time, but the different and distinctive use of language by each character helped.
What came over clearly was how proud the Jamaicans were of the “Mother Country” and how disappointed they were at the poor state of the country and the reception they received. The book really showed the deprivation and hardship experienced by the population of Britain during the war and just afterwards. Immigrants like Hortense were amazed at the poor way a lot of the people had to live, the run down housing, the lack of pride in appearance, etc.
The Jamaicans still seemed to have had very old fashioned attitudes and etiquette, e.g. dressing up for Sunday, shopping, and interviews. Education was very important to them – Hortense aspires to speaking the King’s English and turns out to be more polite and well spoken than anyone she meets. The education she had received reflected an old fashioned England that not changed with the times.
The central theme of the book is the racism – the attitudes the incomers faced, people’s perception/misconception of other races (including Jews), fostered through fear and an assumption of intellectual inferiority. However these attitudes came through within groups too – Hortense considered herself special due to the golden colour of her skin as opposed to the other darker skinned people on her island.
Well portrayed is the blatant, accepted (at the time) and shocking racism of the U.S. Army even when stationed on British soil – illustrated by having different nights on leave in different towns for white or black soldiers so there would not be trouble, the way Gilbert was treated when he was sent to fetch spare parts from a U.S. base, and the scene in the cinema where black soldiers were expected to sit at the back. This led to the revolt / riot when Gilbert didn’t comply and ultimately the shooting of Arthur, Queenie’s father in law by a U.S. Military policeman which was then covered up in the report in the paper.
Folk had enjoyed the book in general but not found it a page turner. It is told with humour and sympathy – a real mix of comedy and tragedy. One was left wondering how things unfolded beyond the cover – feeling that these are real people and their story carried on. As one book club member said “I love it when a book does that, or when you are away from the book you wonder what the characters are doing now. Is that a bit weird?”