When Andrea Levy's novel Small Island was released in 2004, she created a new literary world for her readers. Inspired by her Jamaican parents' stories from their first encounter with England in the immediate years after World War II and the Jamaican British diaspora's experience, she brings to life the young school teacher Hortense and the RAF sergeant Gilbert. Thus she gives a voice to the Afro-Caribbean immigrants in post-war UK. World War II transformed the lives of the English couple Queenie and Bernard and the Jamaican couple Hortense and Gilbert. This is a novel depicting lives that are mysteriously intertwined and with huge culture clashes, but in spite of everything, new options open up which bring hope for a brighter future.
Before you start working with the novel, you should be able to answer the following questions:
What is the RAF? Which role did the RAF play in World War II?
Which group of people do the term Afro-Caribbeans apply to?
Why are Afro-Caribbeans sometimes referred to as West Indians?
What is meant by the term diaspora?
Andrea Levy and Small Island
If you follow this link you will find an interview the Guardian Book Club did with the author in January 2011. Read an extract from the Interview with Andrea Levy and listen to the podcast version of the interview. Even if it is quite extensive (45 min.), you should spend a few minutes listening to the author giving life to her characters by demonstrating their Jamaican English accent.
The Main Characters
Read about the main characters before you read the extract.
The first part of the extract is dedicated to Hortense, the Jamaican female protagonist. She has just arrived in England and is about to knock on her prospective landlady, Queenie's door. Obviously she takes great pleasure in recapitulating how she and her friend, Celia Langley, used to imagine how grand England was. She is now ready for her new country and for reunion with Gilbert, her husband, whom she barely knows. Through her marriage with him, she gets access to the land of her dreams. The question is, though, how does post-war Britain correspond with her ideals?
In the second part we are introduced to yet another Jamaican narrator, Gilbert, whose dream is to help what he terms the Mother Country, i.e. England, by fighting Hitler in the war. Young men like Gilbert from the numerous British colonies, were enlisted in the RAF and were trained in the USA. Even if he thinks he looks good in his uniform, he misses Jamaica, and in particular - the food.
The third narrator is Queenie, who eventually becomes Gilbert's and Hortense's landlady. London and its inhabitants are suffering through the Blitz. Queenie's husband, Bernard, serves in the British army in India. Much to the dismay of her neighbours in the all-white community, Queenie starts taking in Jamaican lodgers, to make a living for her father-in-law and herself. In this extract Queenie explains the origin of her name and reveals her family background.
Extract from Small Island
Read an Extract from Small Island.
After reading the introduction and the extract try the multiple choice task in the link collection.
- Read Hortense's narration in the extract. Choose 4 adjectives that you think might describe her personality: submissive, introvert, outspoken, observant, impertinent, arrogant, humble, self-confident, intelligent, insecure.
- Pinpoint examples from the text to illustrate your characterisation of Hortense.
- Look at the adjectives listed in #1 again. What qualities would we expect in an immigrant on the first day in her new country? Choose 4 adjectives.
- Study the paragraph where Hortense is on Queenie's doorstep. Who do you think speaks "funny"– Hortense or Queenie? Characterise the different ways in which the two characters speak. Why is communication between them so difficult?
- Study Hortense and Gilbert's narratives. List the culture clashes you find. How do these culture clashes contribute to the mood in the story?
outspoken, observant, self-confident, intelligent
Hortense is very perceptive and notices details around her (e.g.the state of Queenie's house), she matches all her impressions with her presumptions from Jamaica and makes conclusions that make sense to her. She speaks her mind and very quickly concludes that Queenie is "funny", because she does not speak "proper English" (even if she is the native speaker)
submissive, humble, introvert, insecure
- Do we make stereotypical presumptions regarding immigrants? How does Hortense correspond with these stereotypes? Does Andrea Levy challenge us by coining a different picture of an immigrant? And why would she do that?
- Queenie provides lodging for Jamaican immigrants. According to her, Mr. Todd, the man next door, makes the following accusation aganist her: "Darkies! I'd taken in darkies next door to him...His concern, he said, was that they would turn the area into a jungle!" The indigenous British population saw the wide-scale immigration of Caribbeans in the years after WWII as a huge menace towards British culture and values. Discuss Mr. Todd and the general British indigenous population's attitudes towards the new immigrants. Why were they worried, do you think? Do you see any parallells to current attitudes towards immigrants?
- Both Hortense and Gilbert are self-confident characters and proud of their Caribbean culture. They also admire the colonial power, England, and have a sincere wish to contribute and help the British population to defeat Germany and help rebuild the country after the war. How do you think they were met by the Britons? And how do you think this affected them and their values?
- The novel was adapted for BBC television in 2009. Watch a clip from Small Island BBC.
- Practise Jamaican English (listen to the accent in the video clip). Now, act out the scene from where Hortense presses Queenie's door bell (as described by Hortense in the extract).
- After the role play, discuss what is demonstrated in this scene.
Read the Novel
According to the English curriculum you are supposed to: "interpret at least one major work of fiction [...] from the 1900s up to the present." Small Island might be a good choice, as it also provides you with curricular information about multicultural Britain.
We recommended that you listen to the full version of the podcasted interview (above) and work with the novel in one of the ways suggested.