This was my February/2000s ‘What Shall Helen Read?’ novel, and it is now April. Oh dear. To re-cap: this challenge began this year; every month I would list the novels from a different decade (working backwards from the present) which pined unread on my shelves and ask you, dear readers, to vote on which I should read and then write about here. January’s selection, from the 2010s, was in fact a library book which I’d added to my list of unread titles as there weren’t that many of them and I wanted to make the competition more exciting. (But here I should add that I have just finished Sarah Perry’s first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, which I enjoyed. This was one of the runners-up in the January challenge.) What with one book that wasn’t even a TBR and one that’s months late, this isn’t proving the most successful challenge ever in the world of book blogging. Never mind. Perhaps I’ll catch myself up.
Back to February’s choice: Small Island. I note that my parents gave me my copy, a hardback, and it’s been waiting for its moment for about fourteen years. And I’m very glad to have finally read it and to have made the acquaintance of Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie (oh and Bernard too I suppose).
‘This is not chips,’ Gilbert Joseph say to me. ‘Your mummy never tell you how to make chips?’
‘My mother,’ I tell him, ‘taught me to be thankful for the food the Lord provide.’
‘But your mummy not here to eat this. [...] How you don’t know what is a chip?’ he ask me. He pick up the potato with his finger to hold it up to show me. Any fool could tell it would burn him. He drop it again and blow on his hand. I tell him the Englishwoman downstairs assure me this is a chip. His eye is wide awake now. ‘You been talking to Queenie?’
It was she that inform m that a chip is a potato cut up small. Reminding me twice that is must be peeled first. So I cut up little Irish potatoes as instructed. I have only the one little ring to cook on but I place the chips of potato in a pan of water so they might boil.
Narrated by four characters, the main action begins in London in 1948 and ranges back in time, over the previous quarter-century, and in place, from Britain to Jamaica to India. Hortense arrives in post-war London to join her husband, Gilbert, who moved there six months before. Hortense is illegitimate and was brought up by her father’s relations, with an uncertain status in their home – not exactly a servant but not one of the family, either. She is a qualified teacher and I have to say my favourite character in the novel – rigid, literal, ‘proper’ (but not above a bit of backstabbing to marry Gilbert), slightly pretentious and extremely innocent. London in 1948 is quite a shock to her; no less Gilbert, who, far from living the dream, is barely making ends meet in a dilapidated rented bed-sit that Hortense ordinarily wouldn’t keep hens in. Gilbert is also a narrator, a Jamaican who enlisted to serve the Mother Country during the war and who returned to England afterwards in the hope of a better future there than he could have found in Jamaica. His landlady is Queenie, daughter of a butcher, and wife of a bank clerk who has never returned from the war. The last narrator is Bernard, her unsatisfactory and repressed husband, sent off to India to fight the Japs near the Burmese border. He offers what I think of as the ‘official white male’ perspective on things in the novel, particularly the innate superiority of the British and the rightness of their views.
Bernard isn’t really able to see the world as it is because of his assumptions. He expresses pride, for instance, that the British Army never maltreats its prisoners, only pages after a Japanese pilot has been summarily executed. Poor Bernard does not even understand himself and his feelings for Maxi; he certainly doesn’t understand Queenie. The other three narrators, being female and/or black, have had to observe things more accurately. If you are not at the top of the pecking order, you need to be alert to possible threats, aware of what it is appropriate for you to say and do and what not, if you are to get by. They too have their prejudices, but they adapt them more readily.
Levy has chosen to write a novel which focuses on the lives of people who have often been missed from what one might call the main historical narrative of this period of history: the working classes and black Jamaicans. The novel’s structure eschews a straightforward linear structure, circling back from 1948 and returning to it again and again, before circling back again, as if to signal that it’s pushing away from convention. Levy’s characters also circle around the Second World War: the men do no actual fighting, those in Jamaica see no bombs fall, even Queenie and Bernard, cowering in their air raid shelter during the Blitz, are portrayed as the passive victims of Great Men’s foreign policies, with no say or enthusiasm in the matter themselves. Yet the consequences of the war, especially on the British empire, will have an enormous impact on all their lives, long after the novel has finished. Meanwhile, they have to make the best of the situations in which they find themselves, situations in which they have very limited agency. As a woman who wants to escape her family’s butchery business, Queenie has few options beyond marriage. (And the way that she marries Bernard in spite of herself is convincingly delineated.) As a lowly aircrafthand (or erk) in the RAF at the end of the war, Bernard has to follow orders whether he likes them or not. As black Jamaicans, Hortense and Bernard face outrageous racism and limits on their employment opportunities in London that they never had in Kingston. England turns out not to be the Mother Country or the Promised Land; it’s poor and many of its inhabitants despise them. Despite this, by the end of the novel is looking brightest for them, for they have energy and ingenuity.
(Street in Brixton, 1952; fuller caption and source here)
Using four narrators is a risky strategy, and I have to say I felt the novel’s energy and my interest flagged rather with Bernard’s sections; it’s difficult to enjoy spending time with a repressed character riddled with racism and sexism, though Levy does her best to elicit empathy for him (and his viewpoint is thematically and structurally important to the novel). However, Levy has a really remarkable ability to write distinctive voices: open the book at random and read a few sentences and you know instantly whose thoughts you are reading. Her characters are nuanced, mixtures of good and bad qualities. And while we only see through the eyes and words of whichever character is narrating at that moment, Levy brilliantly evokes provincial Jamaica, mid-century Kingston and post-war London so that you can almost taste them. If you haven’t read this yet, don’t leave it for fourteen years.
I carried two portions of fish and chips back to the room for Hortense and me. There she was, sitting on the bed. Her face, even after this time, remained set in an ill-tempered frown. ‘See here, Miss Mucky Foot,’ I said. ‘I have fish and chips for you and me.’ Only her big eyes swivelled to my direction while her arms folded tighter across her chest. I got out two plates, which were neatly stacked in the cupboard. Unwrapping and placing the fish and chips on the plate I tell her, ‘You know what the English do?’ Of course she did not reply but I did not expect her to. ‘They eat this food straight from the newspaper. No plate. Nothing.’ I knew this high-class woman would not be able to keep her face solemn in the presence of such barbarity. Scandalised, she could not stop herself staring at me in disbelief. ‘Yes, from the newspaper! So lesson number one, Miss Mucky Foot. This is a chip.’ I offered the chip to her on a fork. She took it from me and popped it greedy into her mouth. ‘And now lesson number two. Are you listening to me carefully.’ I leaned towards her to whisper the secret. She had her big eye on me, mesmerised as a gossip. ‘Not everything,’ I tell her, ‘not everything the English do is good.’