A sometimes uncomfortably honest account of post-WWII London, from the unlikeliest of perspectives
Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a glimpse into a past I did not know existed. Told through the contrasting but intersecting points of view of the main characters — Queenie, Gilbert and Hortense — Small Island examines the lives of the occupants of 21 Nevern Street, London, just after the Second World War. 1948 is a time of bombedout buildings, threadbare clothes, rationing, rubble and returning soldiers.
Gilbert Joseph is a de-mobilized RAF serviceman that left Jamaica to join the fight in Europe for the Mother Country against Hitler and finds that the racism he was subjected to during his service is worse now that he is a civilian. His newly-arrived wife Hortense is shocked at the sight of post-war London, the deprivations of daily life and that her perfectly elocuted English is not understood by the majority of her neighbours.
Queenie Bligh, whose husband Bernard is posted to India and does not return at war’s end, has to make ends meet and keep her crumbling house from falling down around her. Her solution, to take in tenants from Jamaica, is met with disbelief and hostility from her neighbours.
Through excellent use of flashback, we see events through each character’s eyes as each is given the narrator’s voice in chapters titled for them: Queenie’s experiences through the war, Hortense’s arrival to England, Gilbert’s frustrations in finding work post-war and the absent Bernard’s perspective from India. Each story intertwines with the next to reveal an intimate portrait of life during a time of immense change and disruption. Small Island is an examination of Country, colonialism, race, and it is a love story, or two, or three. One is for the Small Island of Jamaica, for its greenness and heat juxtaposed to grey and grimy London. Another is the story of Gilbert and Hortense, newly married and dealing with all that it implies. The third love story is surprising, so I will leave it to you to discover.
I enjoyed this book immensely. There are scenes that are very uncomfortable and some that are hilarious, delivering a full and unflinching sense of the moment. This was one of those rare books, that when I finished I wanted to flip open to the first page and start again. It should be on your summer reading list.
Speaking of the summer reading list, you could do a lot worse than including a few Elmore Leonard titles. I recently had some beach time and at the house we rented there was a copy of Cuba Libre. Published in 1998 to coincide with the sinking of the USS Maine 100 years before, this is a historical novel that only Leonard could write. Set in 1898 we see the outbreak of the Spanish American War and the initial stirrings of uprising in Cuba against the rule of the Spanish.
Against this backdrop we have characters Ben Tyler, a horse trader and bank robber who brings a string of horses by boat to Havana for a wealthy American sugar baron, the wealthy baron’s mistress Amelia Brown and a cast of bad guys including Spanish soldiers, Cuban militants and the wealthy oligarchy of Plantation owners.
Ben finds himself in jail for murder and suspected gunrunning. While incarcerated, he watches his partner get shot by a firing squad, meets a kidnapped American sailor from the sunken Maine and a group of Cuban “freedom fighters.” They all get busted out of jail with the help of the beautiful Amelia, only for Ben to find himself embroiled in a kidnap plot and he gets crossed and double-crossed until it seems everyone is going to lose.
In the background hovers the impending invasion by the Americans, the smuggled guns, the rich sugar baron and a Cuban policeman who has been searching for Ben all along. Throw in a little “yellow journalism” (practiced by those who stirred up war fever in the American press), and you get a yarn spun as only Leonard could spin. Punchy, fast-paced, fun and you may even learn some Cuban-American history. It is a bit of a love story as well. What more for summer reading do you want?