Context: friend in Albania lent me this and I read it while we hitched from Greece to Liechtenstein via this service station in Rosenheim, Germany.
Reading this at the same time as White Teeth, which I shall review shortly, was strange. They both focus on issues that arise from Britain’s immigrant population, they both have interludes from WW2 in them and they both have insights into Jamaican culture.
But while White Teeth failed in so many ways I thought, Small Island was successful.
The first reason that it’s successful is that it is told in the first person. I mean, it has to be doesn’t it? How am I, WASP that I am and son of Raj-born descendants, to understand what people coming to live in my country went through and how am I to sympathise with them in any way unless I hear their voice. Levy seems to have made a deliberate choice to use the first person idealist viewpoint to allow me to get a sense of what it must have been like for them.
Secondly, she uses the revolving narrator device to allow me to reflect on, not only each individual viewpoint, but different sides of the same situation. This enables me to reflect also on my own prejudices, the conclusions I jump to when judging cultures other than my own and the causes of inter-cultural conflict. She varies the style for each of the strong characters she introduces us to as well. This is, I think, the best attempt at this I’ve read. Certainly better than Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible or Atwood’s Robber Bride. All very successful and makes the novel very poignant and, at times, tragic.
The story is also good. There’s a twist in the middle and one that’s much more unexpected at the end. I felt the one at the end was less successful. I don’t want to give anything away. Simply to say that I felt there could have been much more made of the situation that Queenie, the white landlady, finds herself in. I would have liked another hundred pages or so to see what would have developed. Perhaps that was another of Levy’s successful devices. It certainly left me wondering what the future was for all these characters.
But, most successful of all, I think this novel gave me, as I travelled back to the UK after ten years living overseas, a better understanding of what my country is made of. It resensitised me to the issues of race and culture and made me a bit more aware of this within my passport culture. In conjunction with White Teeth, I now feel I’ve a whole generation of insight inside me. Mmmm… aren’t novels lovely?
I thought I’d been to Africa.
[England in winter:] most of the day dark. Sometimes, if you blink you can miss the whole day.
But I paid it no mind as I pulled my back up and straightened my coat against the cold.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb