I picked up Small Island by Andrea Levy for the Orange July event. I don't think I have read any Orange Prize winning fiction before. Small Island won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2004.
The story is narrated by four key protagonists -Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard. The story deals with issues of racism and immigration after the World War II in 1948. The contributions of Jamaicans to the 'Mother Country' in the war is highlighted. All the narrators say a before and present story. The story is narrated in a lighter vein many times bringing laughter but the issues are not sidelined. The story could have been sad and depressing but it is not. Instead it is funny and thought provoking. Gilbert's story though told in a humorous manner did no fail to make me angry at the way he was treated.
Hortense is a Jamaican who immigrates to London after World War II. Her life in Jamaica as a daughter of an important personality brought up by her cousins is interesting. I got immediately engrossed in Hortense story and I like her- golden face and a golden future. Her observations about life are funny. Coming to London she keeps saying 'Is this how English live?' She is surprised that people go out in what she thinks is a housecoat. She has a problem getting others to understand what she says. And Rats! And chips! It is hilarious.
Queenie is brought up in a farm in Hertfordshire. Her father is a butcher and she is a vegetarian. She lives in London. She lets rooms for lodgers in her house for income as her husband Bernard is missing even after two years of war. She forms a special bond with Gilbert and is kind and is ready to show Hortense the way about in London without any colour prejudice.
Gilbert is funny. Gilbert complains about English boiled food and prefers American fried food. But for all the fried food in the world, Gilbert understands America on 1940s is riddled with segregation and in many ways England is better. Gilbert faces racism as a RAF personnel in England and I am surprised he came back to England after the war. He feels Jamaica is really a small island and he needs a bigger place to stretch his wings. And I think it is because of Queenie with whom he forms a bond that probably makes him feel this place is not bad. Of all the characters, I like Gilbert the most.
I was least interested in Bernard's story. Maybe because it is at the end and I just wanted to finish it. I didn't expect what happened in the end. Michael Roberts for his brief appearance makes quite an impact.
This story is going to stay with me a long time. I would like to read Long Song especially after reading Andrea's reason for writing the story.