When I saw the advertisements for the stage version of Andrea Levy’s prize winning novel that I’d obviously never read a few months ago, I was intrigued. I had smugly dismissed Small Island as a book club book – a bit of a potboiler, with some history thrown in – and thought it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. However, it being adapted into a play and being performed at the country’s most illustrious theatre, made me reconsider my earlier snobbery. Perhaps there was something in this novel, after all? I then went on a backstage tour of the National with my students, and saw the props and staging being made for the show, which looked very interesting indeed, so I promptly booked a ticket and made a mental note to get around to reading the book before my night at the theatre. With a week to go, I finally made a start, and after an initial struggle to get into it, I was soon swept away.
The book tells the story of two couples; Jamaicans Gilbert and Hortense, and Britons Queenie and Bernard. Hortense is marked as special from birth; she has ‘golden skin’ and so is destined for a great future. Brought up by her well-to-do but strict and unsympathetic aunt and uncle, she is taught to be a lady, the measure of which is how well she can speak English with a proper British accent and make a sponge cake. Intelligent and ambitious, Hortense trains to be a teacher, and dreams of the day when she can make something of herself. However, there are limited opportunities in Jamaica for her to have the life she longs for; for that, she will have to go to the Mother Country. The Mother Country is what Gilbert has spent the recent war fighting hard for. Though his reception in Britain was mixed at best when he was posted there as a member of the RAF, he can’t wait to return when he finds the post-war Jamaica he comes home to is shabby, down-at-heel and far too small now he has seen more of the world. Gilbert wants to go to England, but he can’t afford the boat fare. Hortense wants to go to England, but she can’t go alone. A chance meeting through a friend throws this odd couple together; haughty, educated Hortense, and the devil-may-care joker Gilbert are complete opposites, but Hortense has the boat fare saved and Gilbert is willing to marry her in order to secure her passage. Though they barely know each other, they join forces to enable their separate dreams to come true, though little do they know what awaits them in their fabled land of dreams.
Queenie is a pretty, clever and ambitious daughter of a country butcher, whose marriage to the blundering, awkward Bernard Bligh is made out of desperation to get away from a life of drudgery on her parents’ farm. She and Bernard start their unsatisfactory married life in the largely boarded-up, cavernous Bligh family home in Earls’ Court, West London, where Bernard’s father also lives, left a nervous wreck after the previous war. When war is declared, Queenie throws herself into helping those affected by the Blitz, while Bernard is sent to Burma. After the war, Bernard’s mysterious failure to return home forces Queenie to open the house to paying guests, and one of her first lodgers is Gilbert, come ahead of Hortense to secure work and a place to live, and who had met Queenie during the war. Queenie is, however, one of the only people in the local area who doesn’t care about the colour of the wave of recent West Indian arrivals’ skin, and she soon finds herself at loggerheads with her neighbours over her perceived immorality in letting ‘such people’ live in her home. Gilbert is also shocked by his reception in London, and the indignities he faces on a daily basis as he tries to secure work. When Hortense arrives, intent on becoming a teacher and living in a fine house, she is horrified by the run-down, racist Britain she encounters, and the house in Earls Court soon becomes a battleground, as these inhabitants of two small islands collide.
There is much more to the novel than this, and plenty of to-ing and fro-ing in time to reveal the pasts and motivations of the various characters, who intertwine in numerous interesting and heartbreaking ways. I was absolutely swept away by the worlds in London and Jamaica, Burma and India, that Levy draws on the page, and her ability to juggle so many different stories, settings, time periods and characters while managing to make them all intersect with one another was truly impressive. It’s a marvellous, ground breaking book – one of the first fictional representations of the Windrush generation – and a heartrending, sobering account of the reality of the racism, hatred and injustice experienced by many of the post-war immigrants who were promised a better life in Britain. I cried and I laughed and I almost couldn’t bear to finish, and this was made even more so by having seen it come alive on stage before I’d managed to make it to the end of the novel. The stage version is magical – so clever and inventive – with wonderful visual tricks and a fantastic cast. I was wiping away tears by the end, and it was so lovely to see the world I’d been immersed in come to life before my eyes. If you can make it to the theatre to watch the play, go – and if you can’t, read the book and let your imagination do the work for you. You won’t regret it!