Small Island – Andrea Levy

No more Granny Savidge Reads for a while, you will just have to make do with me from now on. Well until the spring when I am off, with the Converted One of course, up north for a weekend of blogging respite for me but blog building for a certain someone. Today’s post is all about one of Gran’s favourite books which is Small Island by Andrea Levy which I had decided to read while she was staying here and also before the second half of the BBC adaptation is on. Now my Gran and I agree on a lot of books but heartily disagree on many too. Which category would this book fall into?

Small Island starts as two of its main characters come face to face. On a street in London in 1948 Queenie Bligh opens the door to be faced with Hortense Gilbert fresh from Jamaica, a woman she has never seen before but one who turns out to be the wife of one of her lodgers Gilbert. One of several lodgers that Queenie’s neighbours do not approve of as they are black, the fact that Gilbert fought for the British in the War it’s recovering from doesn’t matter one jot. With her husband away Queenie needs the cash and besides she isn’t prejudice, she takes people as she finds them and she finds them alright. Though at first you wouldn’t think these two women have anything in common you soon learn they do and not just in personality or the facts they didn’t marry for love… there is something in their very different pasts that links them too.

I am making it sound like the book is just about these two women and that isn’t the case at all, they just take over every scene they are in even when they aren’t narrating it. The book is actually narrated by Queenie, Hortense and their two husbands Gilbert (who is just lovely) and Bernard. Each has a very interesting tale to tell not only on their lives and backgrounds, which are revealed in a slightly disjointed order. They also give four voices to war, culture, love and racism which aren’t small topics by any means.

Hortense who comes to England after buying her marriage to a man she doesn’t love only to find it isn’t the dream she dreamt of and that despite her high opinion of herself society sees her as the lowest of the low is a particularly interesting story. Gilbert, who always tries to better his life and his difficult wife’s dreams, yet gets stuck at every step because of the colour of his skin. Queenie’s story comes later in the book but it packs a punch or two, especially when the repressed Bernhard comes back.

I could gush and gush on and on all the praise I have for this book for hours. It just worked on so many levels for me. It had great storylines and plots; in fact this book had so much to say and was so delightfully written I think I could have read another few hundred pages of the voices and their backgrounds and thoughts on the situations they were in. My only wish is that I hadn’t seen the first half of the BBC adaptation (which you can see on iPlayer) before I started reading the book as it gave away some of the forthcoming plots and twists, but only some, and it is a wonderful adaptation.

So like my Gran I absolutely loved this book; in fact I utterly adored it. Could you tell? I thought it was just so wonderfully written, the characters vivid (I think Hortense and Queenie are two of my favourite characters of the year). How Levy came up with the back stories and how they all interweaved together I will never know, they were completely believable despite happening on opposite sides of the world and you couldn’t guess how it would all work out. So good indeed was this wonderful novel that I ended up missing my stops on the tube several times reading this book which is a very good sign. One of my books of the year, in fact a book that will be whizzing straight into my top ten books of all time. Utterly marvellous, if you havent read it (which I think most of you will have – what did you think?) then you simply must!



Filed under Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Books To Film, Headline Review, Review

41 responses to “Small Island – Andrea Levy

  1. novelinsights

    Oh this sounds brilliant. I will have to look out for it next time I go to the library! 🙂

  2. Sounds much better than the tv adaptation (in my opinion). What did you think of the BBC program?

    • I am enjoying the BBC versionas I briefly mentioned in the blog post above I think its very good. I love the actress who plays Queenie anyway and thought she was fabulous as Jane Eyre. I think the whole cast is good though, charmed is the word. Its not the book as nothing could be but I am very much enjoying it, have heard mixed opinions from others.

  3. I didn’t realise there was a BBC adaptation for this book. I haven’t read it yet, but have it here. I’ll read it and then hope that it has been released on DVD!

  4. As I said in a previous post, I have had a copy of this for years (four, Amazon reliably informs me) and really *must* read it. Sigh, so many great books to make time for!

  5. Another convert – excellent! Now you know why it’s one of my books of the decade!

    I’m not that enamoured of the series. Queenie’s not brash enough, Gilbert’s not comic enough. Hortense was pitch perfect in part 1. I hope part 2 picks up.

    • A definate 100% convert to this book. Well not convert as I wasnt against the book before I read it. I thought it would probably be right up my street.

      I am now very keen to read much more of my Grans recommendations, I think the Poisonwood Bible may be next on my hit list.

  6. OK…you (and Granny Savidge Reads, of course) have convinced me that I really need to read this book!

  7. It’s got multiple points of view? SOLD. 😛

  8. I have heard good things about this book in the past, but I hadn’t really heard much about WHY the book was so good, just that it was! So thanks for giving your insights into what you liked and what worked so well… I do like the idea of two disparate stories coming together and elevating the book to a new height. If only this one wasn’t always so expensive at the used bookstore! 😉

    • Thanks for your comment Steph.

      I had heard a lot of people say ‘its great’ and not say why. But then I think people always worry they will give too much away. Or, in the case of this book, being able to tell someone everything it encompasses in your own thoughts as there is so much.

  9. I recently found this in a box of books I took back from my sister’s and only after I finished watching the second half of the first episode on tv (which I thought was great). I wasn’t sure whether to save it for later, but your review has made me want to read it. Maybe I should, before watching the rest of the tv series.

  10. This review, your comment on my blog and a few more comments relating to your comment (are you following? please keep up) on my blog have convinced me I need to unearth this from my TBR, where it’s been residing for at least two years. I think it will go on a little trip to Australia with me, because god knows I’m going to need something to read during those 26 hours travelling to the antipodes!

    • Hahahah I was keeping up, honest. You must, must unearth this from the TBR (great phrase) and read it.

      I can imagine that Hortense and Queenie would be wonderful company for a 265 hour journey no question. What are youy going to take with you for the way back and while you are there?

  11. Is there any description of how big the house is? Do the residents run into each other a lot? Do they share the kitchen? What about the bathroom?

    I think that the proximity in the home would affect everyone’s relationship.

  12. I read this one last year and absolutely loved it too. Your review was great because even though I remembered that I did love the book I couldn’t actually remember a lot of the specifics!! So typical of me!

    • Its a fabulous book isnt it Karen. I am now quite jealous who everyone who hasnt had the pleasure of reading it for the first time the lucky things.

      I find that I will love a book, though reading so many you forget the finer details, so sometimes its nice when you see a blog post that brings it all back and sometimes more.

  13. I liked ‘Small Island’ better after our book club discussed it. That actually happens fairly often – which is one of the things I love about book club: it makes you see things in a book you hadn’t before…or appreciate books you didn’t particularly enjoy reading.

    • Isnt it interesting that sometimes reading in a group and discussing in a group can do that to you? It has happened with some books I have read in groups in the past. I would have liked to have read this for a book group actually, it would have been very interesting to discuss.

  14. henrietta

    Glad that you enjoyed this Simon. We read it in my book group a couple of years ago, and it got a hefty thumbs up. The characters stayed with me a long time. I also valued it because I knew nothing of Jamacas’ part in the war. All the talk of “the mother country” helped to explain why some Jamacans wanted to fight, and to settle here. The treatment they received is shocking now. The scenes in the tea shop and at the cinema were horrific.

    I watched the first part of the BBC adaption with interest. I thought that the first half was a bit muddling, all the changes of time, place, seemed much clearer in the book. However, I do think that it settled down and that Queenie in particular was well cast. Somehow the squalor and horror of the pig farm did not come accross on TV nearly as well as in the book, although Queenies mother was just as dreadful on screen!

    • Henrietta I utterly adored it, I thought it was just brilliant. Its one of those books that makes you think that you might never read something so good again. Though of course you do eventually, it just left me almost breathless I suppose.

  15. What a beautiful review! This is one of those books that I always pick up while browsing in bookstores, but for some reason, it’s never made it to the register with me. I will have to check it out for sure.

  16. kerry anne

    a wonderful performance , well casted and licence fee well spent
    it deserves an award
    a beautiful book and a beautiful adaptation to TV

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