Small Island A Novel

Andrea Levy




Trade Paperback

448 Pages


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Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' PrizeA Publishers Weekly Top 10 Novel of the YearWinner of the National Book Critics Circle Award 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 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 crossing taken and passage lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers—in short, an encapsulation of that most American of experiences: the immigrant's life.


Praise for Small Island

"Levy's greatest achievement in Small Island is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals . . . Small Island is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope."—Fatema Ahmed, The New York Times Book Review

"A perfectly crafted tale of crossed lives and oceans. Big themes—abandonment, survival, racial awareness, forgiveness—are not always weighty enough to chart a smooth course over constant shifts in voice, time, and place. Levy's outstanding talent is her ability to control these upheavals. From Kingston to London to Calcutta, Levy deftly directs her story with twin reins of violence and humor."—San Francisco Chronicle

"In the shabby remnants of post-blitz London, three near-strangers find themselves in a single house. Queenie Bligh is a spirited Yorkshirewoman waiting for her husband to return from the war and taking in tenants to make ends meet. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican RAF veteran, is struggling to establish himself in England, a country that he'd been taught was his motherland but which regards him as an interloper; his bride, Hortense, has just arrived in London and is bewildered that her education and class can't transcend the color of her skin. The narrative voice jumps between the characters, a technique that embeds familiar cultural observations in closely observed and surprising lives . . . Levy's writing deftly illuminates the complex and contradictory motives behind each character's behavior."—The New Yorker

"Levy tells a good story, and she tells it well—using narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew. Levy's novel is no mere flight of fantasy, for it is rooted in the past and mired in the complicated stuff of empire. At the same time the memorable characters are radically unhinged from any sense of national fixity as their lives become intermeshed in strangely unexpected yet predictable ways . . . Prize-winning is an arbitrary sport, but the recognition bestowed upon Levy's work is a testament to her talents—her formidable craft and staying power in an otherwise faddish business."—Louise Bernard, The Washington Post Book World

"Don't be deceived by the modest size of Andrea Levy's Small Island when you see it on bookstore shelves . . . The truth is that it's a sizable epic spanning three hemispheres and several decades—a revealing and accomplished novel . . . Levy deftly and generously captures the moment when the arrival of immigrants from far-flung parts of the [British] Empire was shockingly fresh to all involved."—Seattle Times

"This splendid, well-told novel follows four intertwined lives that collide in post-war London and culminate in the birth of multicultural England. Levy's novel will find happy readers among fans of Michael Ondaatje and Kazuo Ishiguro—or anyone who enjoys a good, long read. It's all here: exceptional dialogue, clever narrative, and a rich story that tells us something new about our shared history on a planet that is increasingly small and yet will always be inhabited by individuals possessed, at our best, by singular consciousness and desire. That Small Island creates such a world, so peopled, is its great success: With their graciousness in conflict and comedy in moments of despair, Levy's characters enlarge our lives even as their own life shrinks around them."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Levy writes with remarkable insight into . . . lives circumscribed by race, class, and circumstance. There is passion and anger, but also warmth and humor in her acute observation of their workings . . . Panic and emptiness, the failure to connect lurk beneath the surface. This is a largely neglected period. Levy, in this great novel, does it justice."—Rt. Hon. Paul Boateng, MP, cited on Small Island's receipt of the Orange Prize

"Here is the book I have been waiting for . . . an ample, sprawling story mirroring an expansive inner and outer landscape, spanning two islands and three continents, and incorporating a hybrid cast of humanity cast of humanity idiosyncratic characters; and above all, a book in which the author, Andrea Levy, never once forgets she is telling a story, delighting us, improbably, in this nasty tale of race, with the effervescent style of Dickens."—Toronto Globe & Mail

"Powerful . . . rigorous . . . bittersweet . . . touching. What makes Levy's writing so appealing is her evenhandedness. All her character can be weak, hopeless, brave, good, bad—whatever their color. The writing is rigorous and the bittersweet ending, with its unexpected twist, touching . . . People can retain great dignity, however small their island."—Independent on Sunday

"Everything about the plot, characters, and clever end twist of Small Island [is] beautifully drawn . . . This is an epic book that brings the patois of Jamaicans alive, fills the world of war-torn London with amazing detail, and is a great history lesson about the era when England changed forever as migrants braved bitter racism to flood her shores."—Herald Sun (Melbourne)

"A work of great imaginative power which ranks alongside Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming's The Emigrant, and Caryl Phillips' The Final Passage in dealing with the experience of migration."—Linton Kwesi Johnson

"Small Island is as full of warmth and jokes and humanity as you could wish . . . Such a rich saga, stuffed full of interlocking narratives."—Time Out

"The winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the 2004 Orange Prize—the first writer to win both for the same novel—draws on her Jamaican background in the alluring story of two couples, one Jamaican and one English, whose paths cross in WWII-era England. The Jamaican Gilbert Joseph volunteers for the Royal Air Force, but life in England isn't what he expected, with its tasteless boiled food and insidious racism. After the war, he returns to Jamaica but still hopes to study law in England, and when Hortense, a Jamaican teacher, offers him the money to travel to England if he'll marry her, he agrees-only to discover, back in England, that he cannot study law and the best job he can find is as a postal-truck driver. When Hortense joins him six months later, she is not only shocked by his threadbare fifth-floor room but offended by the prejudice she encounters and discouraged when her Jamaican teacher's credential is rejected. In the story of the adjustments these bright, well-educated and dignified immigrants must make, Gilbert's earthiness offers a delicious counterpoint to Hortense's prideful ambition. Other voices include that of the Josephs' white landlady, Queenie Bligh, the daughter of a provincial butcher, and of her husband Bernard, an older bank clerk in India with the RAF. Queenie meets Gilbert during the war, when he once brings her wandering father-in-law back to her home. The father-in-law, shell-shocked in WWI, is killed by an MP during a brawl at the movies caused when Gilbert refuses to follow the 'rules' that segregate the theater racially. When her husband Bernard doesn't come home to their big London house after the war, Queenie takes in lodgers, including Gilbert and Hortense. The growing tensions among the three—and the disruption when Bernard returns at last—bring a spellbinding story to a surprising, heart-rending climax. An enthralling tour de force that animates a chapter in the history of empire."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Small Island
1948OneHortense It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: ‘Oh, Hortense, when I am older …’ all her dreaming began with ‘when I am older’ ‘ … when I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England.’ This is when her voice became high-class and her nose point into the air – well, as far as her round flat nose could – and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s
Read the full excerpt


  • Andrea Levy

  • Born in 1956 to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is the author of three previous novels and has received a British Arts Council Writers Award in addition to the Orange Prize and Whitbread distinctions. She lives works in London.
  • Andrea Levy ©Laurie Fletcher




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