TITLE: Small Island
AUTHOR: Andrea Levy
RELEASED: September 2004; Headline Review
GENRE: Historical Fiction
KEY INFO: Jamaican immigration to Britain, interracial relations, WW2, colonial Britain
REPRESENTATION: women of colour, people of colour, migrants, female protagonists, PTSD
CONTENT NOTICES: racism, anti-blackness, racist slurs, racial violence
This book was incredible and I feel absolutely cheated by not having had the opportunity to read it before now, despite having done 5-6 years of English Literature and 3-4 years of a history degree. Time and time again we are encouraged to pay attention to the same books in British education; To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men to name a few. Yet at no point was Small Island on any educational reading list, and I think that’s a damn shame.
We need to pay more attention to the important histories of people of colour in Britain. Small Island is such an important book for challenging whitewashed historical narratives, particularly around the time of the Second World War when Small Island is set. We place so much emphasis on the importance of this period in our nation’s history, yet actively ignore the existence of people of colour in Britain and their participation in the Second World War.
Small Island is a step towards learning more about those lives, experiences and histories, and I would really encourage others to read it. It’s superbly written, rich with description, well-developed and interesting characters, and really captures what life was like for people around the time of WW2. I really enjoyed how Levy split the story across 4 different characters – Hortense and Gilbert Joseph who arrive in Britain during the Windrush immigration from Jamaica, and white British landlords Queenie and Bernard Bligh – as it gives us different perspectives, explores interracial relationships, and offers an approach to the topic with great depth and breadth.
This was a fantastic book to read for Black History Month in the UK (October) and I would love to see more people reading and talking about this! It’s quite a long book and took me a while to get through, but it was so worth it. If reading a long historical fiction book seems intimidating, there is also a brilliant BBC adaptation you can watch!