Critical Mass

In Retrospect: Rayyan Al-Shawaf on Andrea Levy’s “Small Island”

By Jane Ciabattari

The National Book Critics Circle’s “In Retrospect” series continues with NBCC member Rayyan Al-Shawaf on Andrea Levy’s “Small Island,” which was a finalist for the NBCC fiction award in 2005. In the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, contemporary critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

In 1998, a public area in Brixton, a section of London heavily populated by people of Caribbean descent, was designated “Windrush Square.” The name refers to the ship that brought the first Caribbeans—or West Indians—to the United Kingdom. Fifty years earlier, the Empire Windrush set off from Australia and sailed all the way to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean, docking at several ports in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where it picked up passengers bound for England. Turning around and making one final stop in Bermuda as it once again crossed the Atlantic, the Empire Windrush finally arrived at Tilbury, on the southeast coast of England, in June 1948. Aboard were just over one thousand passengers, the majority Caribbean. Of these, the largest group consisted of Jamaicans—most of whom had boarded the ship in Kingston—but also included were people from Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana (now Guyana), and other countries. In the years to come, many more Caribbeans would follow, taking advantage of the British Nationality Act of 1948, which allowed anyone born in a British colony to claim British citizenship and live in the UK. By 1962, when immigration controls were tightened, the number of Caribbeans in the UK had reached almost 175,000. These people are often called the Windrush generation.

Andrea Levy’s award-winning Small Island, published in the UK in 2004 and in the US the following year, is not the first work of fiction to tackle this seminal event in the construction of multicultural Britain. In the 1950s, in the midst of the immigration wave, two Caribbean writers explored the experiences of those who arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush or in its wake. The Emigrants (1954), by Barbadian George Lamming, stands as the first work of fiction on the subject, and remains important for probing the tricky question of cultural identity among Caribbeans. In 1956, Trinidadian Sam Selvon achieved minor celebrity status with his slim and unassuming novel The Lonely Londoners. Written in Trinidadian Creole English but featuring characters from across the Caribbean, The Lonely Londoners created new opportunities for narration—not only dialogue—in vernacular English. In the following years, however, immigration and its attendant problems tended to fade into the background in works by Caribbean writers in the UK. It was not until 1985 that another novel concerned exclusively with the travails of the Windrush generation made an appearance, this time by a writer who had moved to the UK as an infant; Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage depicts both the journey and the early experiences of a young and luckless Caribbean immigrant family.

Of course, the mixed legacies of Caribbeans’ mass migration continued to find expression in various literary works. Selvon wrote several additional short novels about Caribbeans in the UK; however, much like him by this time, his characters had been in the country for years. Future Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who arrived in London from Trinidad in 1950 at the age of eighteen,  addressed themes of exile in The Mimic Men (1967), but much of the book is a portrait of a fictional Caribbean island country from which protagonist Ralph Singh has grown estranged. (Himself an Indo-Trinidadian—a descendent of indentured servants brought to Trinidad from India—Naipaul often used Indo-Caribbean protagonists in his early novels. Like Naipaul, the late Sam Selvon was Indo-Trinidadian, but when writing about immigrants in the UK, his characters were mostly Afro-Caribbeans, who are descendants of African slaves) Sometimes, the story of immigrants would be subordinated to a larger ideological discourse, as in Lamming’s anti-colonial Water with Berries (1971), a radical reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest featuring three Caribbean artists in London. Years later, Naipaul would pen The Enigma of Arrival (1987), an autobiographical novel consisting largely of extended ruminations; the story itself recounts episodes from his early period in London, but remains more concerned with his later years in rural Wiltshire.

One of the reasons for Windrush’s receding image was a shift in self-perception on the part of many Caribbean immigrants. In addition to the persistence of racial divisions between Afro-Caribbeans and Indo-Caribbeans, both groups began to develop ties to other communities; Afro-Caribbeans linked up with West Africans, while Indo-Caribbeans forged contacts with immigrants from India and the larger Southeast Asia region. Two new and distinct identities, black and Asian, took shape. Beginning in the late 1950s, an embryonic black British identity became increasingly apparent in works by and about Caribbeans—most of whom were Afro-Caribbeans—in the UK. Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement (1960), for instance, features a young man making the transition from Jamaican to black Briton. An even earlier example of this phenomenon is provided by (white) British author Colin MacInnes, whose City of Spades (1957) offers a portrait of nascent black urban culture in London’s Notting Hill district. (In an interesting coincidence, both books include gay themes) Naturally, Afro-Caribbean immigrants’ UK-born children, who knew only the country of their birth, further explored what it means to be black and British; together with Asian Britons, they have introduced mainstream British culture to a more nuanced use of the term “black,” so often employed to designate all non-whites, including Asians. 

Indeed, black British identity is the complex subject Andrea Levy chose to address when she began writing in her early thirties. Levy’s parents immigrated to the UK from Jamaica, and Levy was born (in 1956) and raised in London. She has recounted that growing up, she read African American writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Audre Lord (herself of Caribbean origin), thereby gaining an understanding and appreciation of black American history, but subsequently was disconcerted to discover that the black British experience had produced comparatively few major works of fiction. She felt impelled to fill the lacuna, and her first two novels, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994) and Never Far from Nowhere (1996), are about characters born to Caribbean immigrants. Interestingly, Levy began to investigate her parents’ roots, and her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999), features a young woman who travels to Jamaica, where she stays with her aunt and learns more about the country from which her parents emigrated.

In 2004, seventy years after the publication of the first novel about a Caribbean in Britain (Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, whose white protagonist, Anna, is forced to leave Dominica), fifty-six years after Windrush, and four and a half years after she began her research and writing, Andrea Levy’s Small Island was published. The story of four individuals, two Jamaicans and two Britons, and their intertwining relationships during World War II and after Windrush, Small Island proved immensely popular and received much critical acclaim, earning both the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize in 2004. The following year, Small Island won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the “Orange of Oranges”—conferred upon the best Orange Prize-winner in the ten-year history of the award. 2005 also saw the publication of Small Island in the US, where it did not go unnoticed; the National Book Critics Circle voted it a finalist for that year’s fiction award, which eventually went to E.L. Doctorow’s The March.

Small Island revolves around four characters: Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert, and Britons Queenie and Bernard. All four separately narrate chapters entitled “Before” and “1948.” Though there is necessarily some overlap—generally made palatable by the protagonists’ divergent, and therefore fresh, perspectives—Levy takes great care to ensure that each character’s chief bailiwick remains distinct.   

For example, Jamaica appears to us largely through the eyes of Hortense, whose “Before” chapters describe growing up in the British colony. Hortense enjoys a strict but privileged upbringing by relatives of some social standing. She attends a good school and studies at a teacher-training college in the nation’s capital, Kingston. Light-skinned and proficient in the King’s English, her future seems assured. Yet her lineage comes back to haunt her. Despite having been raised by the respectable, deeply Christian, and fair-complexioned side of the family, her application for a teaching position at Kingston’s prestigious Church of England School, where “light-skinned girls in pristine uniforms gathered to drink from the fountain of an English curriculum,” is turned down.

In a segue Levy should have fleshed out, Hortense latches on to Gilbert Joseph, who has his sights set on returning to England, where he spent the bulk of World War II as a driver for the Royal Air Force. Hortense does not love Gilbert; in fact, she views him and his uncouth ways with a good deal of contempt. Yet Gilbert, who bears a certain resemblance to Hortense’s longtime crush Michael Roberts—of whom the last she heard is that he went missing in action while flying for the RAF during the war—could be her ticket to England. As he is penniless, Hortense offers to lend him the money for the ocean passage, on two conditions: he must marry her before he leaves and send for her after he gets settled. Gilbert consents, and after they wed, he sets sail for England on the Empire Windrush.

The reason Gilbert wants so desperately to relocate to England—despite having suffered racist discrimination when posted there during the war—is that Jamaica has nothing to offer him. His embarrassingly impecunious state is the result of a failed business venture he undertook with his cousin, the very experience from which he concludes that Jamaica has nothing to offer him. Back in England, Gilbert experiences a host of indignities comparable only to what he endured as an RAF serviceman a few years earlier. Levy handles these two critical episodes in Gilbert’s life with a great deal of sensitivity and a welcome attention to period detail.

In the 1940s, when Gilbert volunteers for the RAF, he and other Caribbeans are sent to the US for basic training in Virginia. Because they are black, these RAF volunteers are prevented from leaving their base; otherwise, they might end up consorting with local white women. When it comes time to ship them off to the UK, Gilbert is informed that he and most of his comrades will not be entered into the training programs for the positions they had been promised. Instead of becoming a wireless operator/air gunner or a flight engineer, Gilbert is reassigned to be trained as a truck driver for the RAF in England. There follows a series of encounters with racism, including the disturbing Americanization of an English town, where—in deference to the Jim Crow sensibilities of southern white US military personnel stationed nearby—the local movie theater segregates the races.

Crucially, however, ignorance proves just as injurious as outright hostility. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a pained Gilbert wonders, “But for me I had just one question—let me ask the Mother Country just this one simple question: how come England did not know me?” Later in the same chapter, Gilbert provides an example of what he and his countrymen are up against:

Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins. Skin as pale as soup, hair slicked with oil and shinier than his boots. See him sitting in a pub sipping a glass of warming rum and rolling a cigarette from a tin. Ask him, ‘Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?’
And hear him reply, ‘Well, dunno. Africa, ain’t it?’

As he grows more impassioned, Gilbert begins to ask his imagined audience rhetorical questions regarding Britons’ obliviousness to Jamaica. He then combines this approach with an indignant affirmation not only of colonials’ loyalty to Britain, but of their intimate familiarity with the country. The coda to his soliloquy movingly encapsulates the cultural crux of an issue—British-colonial relations and attitudes—so often treated in strictly political terms:

It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British Empire would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was threat. But tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any sergeant who would have been able to find that dear island? Give me a map, let me see if Tommy Atkins or Lady Havealot can point to Jamaica. Let us watch them turning the page round, screwing up their eyes to look, turning it over to see if perhaps the region was lost on the back, before shrugging defeat. But give me that map, blindfold me, spin me round thee times and I, dizzy and dazed, would still place my finger squarely on the Mother Country.

When Gilbert returns to England in 1948, he is not so green as to expect a warm welcome, but neither is he so disenchanted as to feel that he has no chance for a life with dignity. Here, Levy demonstrates how “Civvy Street” differs only in form, not content, from military life for people such as Gilbert. He can forget about his dream of studying at university and becoming a lawyer. In 1945, the RAF had instead offered Gilbert lessons in bread-baking. In 1948, when he returns to England, Gilbert cannot even get hired as a storeman in a factory—“Now, in the course of your duties, what if you accidentally found yourself talking to a white woman?”—one among many blue-collar jobs he is denied. Eventually, he resigns himself to working as a driver again, this time for the postal service. And he turns to Queenie, whom he knew briefly during the war, for lodging.
Though Small Island is a work of fiction, it is instructive to note the similarities between its two leading Jamaican characters and Levy’s own parents. Like Gilbert, Levy’s father (and his twin brother) served in the RAF during WWII. And like Gilbert, he (and his brother) came to the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1948. After getting settled, Levy’s father sent for his wife, just as Gilbert does with Hortense. Smaller details also have their roots in family history. In the novel, Gilbert’s father is a Jewish convert to Christianity; cast out from the Jewish community of Jamaica, he marries a black Christian woman. This mirrors the trajectory of Levy’s paternal grandfather and accounts for her Jewish surname. 

That Levy succeeds in making Queenie and Bernard almost as compelling as Hortense and Gilbert ensures that her story of Jamaican-British contact is not one-sided, and demonstrates her equal compassion for the denizens of two very different small islands. Queenie, whom we see growing up on a farm and then moving to London to live with an aunt—all before her marriage to Bernard and the outbreak of war—is at once utterly ordinary and uniquely headstrong. The most vivid illustration of this comes in the form of her dalliance with Michael Roberts and her later platonic friendship with Gilbert; despite being a provincial English girl long exposed to all manner of English prejudices, she has no time for racism or race-based notions of propriety. Indeed, her relationships with black people—and black men at that—flout the social mores of the time.

Yet Queenie’s embodiment of both ordinariness and contrariness becomes apparent well before she befriends Caribbeans. Her behavior during the London Blitz—the Nazis’ aerial bombing campaign against London from late 1940 until mid-1941—is a case in point. Though a dutiful housewife and attentive caregiver for her father-in-law, she defies her husband’s wishes and volunteers at a rest center, where she helps resettle Londoners whose homes have been destroyed by the German Luftwaffe.

Aside from highlighting Queenie’s impulsiveness and independent streak, this development allows Levy to bring to life the terror and mayhem of wartime London. Just as important, she captures the confused and uncomprehending reactions of people faced with an entirely unprecedented threat. Here is Queenie describing her introduction to the aerial bombardment of civilian population centers—including her neighborhood:

Those terrifying noises. They were hardly real—I had no image in my mind that went with a racket like that. It wasn’t wardrobes falling down the stairs. It wasn’t a lorry full of cans spilling over a road. It wasn’t the coalman dropping hundreds of sacks on the pavement outside. Our neighbours weren’t all slamming their doors at once.

In a sense, Bernard is Levy’s most challenging character. How to make readers sympathize with a bigot? Even before his contact with Indians and Caribbeans, Bernard’s various prejudices manifest themselves. “These Jews are more trouble than they’re worth,” he complains about refugees from Germany. And when Queenie implores him to take in a family of poor East Londoners bereft of accommodation as a result of the Blitz, he huffs: “They’re not our sort.” Yet Levy makes Bernard vulnerable, enabling readers to sympathize with him and even better understand his feelings, without endorsing his views.

Unlike Queenie, Bernard’s origins are middle-class, a not insignificant detail when one recalls the rigid stratification of pre-WWII English society. He is destined for a solid—if uninspiring—career as a bank employee. When he weds Queenie, she gains financial security and ease of mind while he acquires an apparently compliant wife, but their marriage is devoid of passion from the start. The war changes everything for Bernard, both because of his personal experiences and the new demographic realities of post-war Britain. Trained as an engine mechanic, this effete, middle-aged bank clerk finds himself stationed in India, then a British colony, for the duration of the war. Yet it is the traumatizing period following the war’s end that proves decisive in shaping Bernard’s views of colonials. During the war, Bernard has few dealings with the local Indian population (his contact with the enemy Japanese is similarly limited; despite much hardship, Bernard’s war experience features almost no combat). After the Japanese surrender, however, Bernard and many others cannot return home to “Blighty” (England), as the RAF refuses to demobilize them. Instead, they are kept in India for police duty; the country is in the grips of an independence movement, as well as inter-communal rioting between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Levy expertly crafts several encounters with Indians during this time of political turmoil and rising violence that not only make for gripping drama, but leave an indelible mark on Bernard’s psyche, of the kind that almost certainly colors his perception of another group of colonials at a later stage. Knowing only the India of pro-independence agitation, inter-communal violence, and rampant crime, Bernard comes to view most Indians as untrustworthy and even sinister, all the more so after his best friend and several other comrades die as a result of what appears to be an arson attack, possibly by pro-independence elements. It is easy to imagine how he might project his simplistic conception of Indians onto Caribbeans when he returns to England to find that they are immigrating in large numbers and that two have even rented a room in his house.

Thus, Bernard, who might easily have been a caricature meant to convey all that is wrong with England, becomes a complex and multi-dimensional character in Levy’s hands. Additionally, it is with Bernard that two of the book’s most haunting images are associated. Both relate to children. Having located and taken to walking around the neighborhood of his best mate Maxi, who burned to death in the arson attack, Bernard soon comes upon Maxi’s widow and two sons, none of whom he has ever met.

As the younger one passed me he dropped his model car. I picked it up for him. Got a faint smile. Little chap staring at me. Spit of his father. A natural successor. He grabbed the car from my hand and ran. Maxi had never seen this younger son. I felt like a thief, stealing a sight that should have been his.

And toward the very end of the book, there is this simply worded but absolutely searing passage, capturing both the strain and sorrow of Bernard’s relationship with Queenie, who has just given birth: “‘I’m sorry I haven’t been a better husband to you,’ I said. And I passed her someone else’s son.”

While such potent imagery accentuates the literary quality of Small Island, an equally significant aspect of Levy’s writing is largely technical: the careful rendering of various English dialects and even differences within a single dialect. Indeed, complementing Levy’s ear for dialogue is a meticulous concern with grammatical and verbal structure, as well as pronunciation. For example, while Bernard speaks a rather posh English corresponding to his middle-class urban upbringing, Queenie is initiated into this particular brand of English only when she moves to London from the country and is assigned a tutor by her aunt. “How come bath should be said barth but fat is definitely not fart in high society?” she asks her aunt.

In India, Bernard learns military jargon, as well as a host of words—such as khanna, charpoy, dhoti, sahib, wallah, and basha—borrowed from Hindi and other Indian and even Southeast Asian languages. When he is thrust into contact with locals following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Levy takes care to ensure that the English-as-a-second-language spoken by many Indians rings true. For example, the author makes frequent use of the present continuous tense when writing dialogue by the likes of Ashok, a Bengali conscript in the British army: “But, tell me, are you ever wondering why the British are coming here to India?”

For obvious reasons, Jamaican English features prominently in Small Island. Crucially, however, the author does not have all her Jamaican characters speak in the same manner. Indeed, Levy’s nuanced rendering of differences in speech delineates her characters that much more clearly and attests to her research concerning linguistic variations not just between national groups, but among compatriots belonging to distinct socio-economic classes.

If, when conversing with each another, Hortense and Gilbert can be said to speak Jamaican Patois (or Creole) at all, it is of a kind that barely qualifies. Much like several (different) vernaculars of English around the world, their everyday speech is characterized in large part by a simplified and slightly altered grammatical structure when compared to Standard English. And obviously, the specific grammatical reformulations, along with the elision of certain words, are often unique to Jamaica. Yet the fact that these modifications are minor means that Hortense and Gilbert’s speech remains closer to Standard English than it does to full-fledged Jamaican Patois.

Moreover, when Hortense and Gilbert speak to Britons, they often tone down or eschew entirely the few Jamaicanisms in their English. This is especially true of Hortense, who takes pride in her mastery of the King’s English and sometimes strives so mightily to converse in a formal and “proper” manner that her speech becomes stilted and comical. Upon meeting Queenie shortly after her arrival in England, Hortense asks her about Gilbert, inquiring, “this is perchance where he is aboding?” That prompts a confused “What?” on Queenie’s part, but generally, Hortense and Gilbert find that it is their accent—not the words they employ—that causes incomprehension.

Elwood, Gilbert’s rough-and-tumble cousin—in whose ill-fated business scheme Gilbert invests and loses his RAF demobilization payment—does speak Patois, though of a decidedly middle-of-the-road variety: “‘Manley get us the vote,’ Elwood said. ‘But him know you caan eat a likkle cross on some paper. To put food on de table we mus’ govern ourselves. Gilbert hear me nah—no more white man, no more bakkra.’” Noticeably, when Gilbert is in Elwood’s company, Levy has Gilbert change his speech accordingly.

Broad Patois is spoken by only one character in the book: Hortense’s grandmother, whom she knows as Miss Jewel, a servant who helps raise her in the house of her better-off relatives. Like Hortense’s mother (whom Hortense barely knew before she secured her daughter’s future with relatives and left for Cuba to find work), Miss Jewel is an unschooled countrywoman. When little Hortense asks her why she is bow-legged, Miss Jewel’s answer—which includes a reference to an African folk religion introduced to Jamaica by enslaved Africans—is this: “Me nuh know, Miss Hortense. When me mudda did pregnant dem seh smaddy obeah’er. A likkle spell yah no.” Later, Hortense teaches her most of the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils

Miss Jewel innovatively refashions this into “Ah walk under a cloud and den me float over de ill. An’ me see Miss Hortense a look pon de daffodil dem.”

To be sure, Small Island has its shortcomings. Coincidence plays too central a role in the proceedings, bringing Gilbert and Hortense to the very house in London where her childhood crush Michael Roberts—whom she wrongly presumes dead—briefly stayed on two separate occasions during and after the war. There is also the issue of Hortense’s starry-eyed view of England, a trait Levy magnifies in order to make the string of inevitable disappointments that much more devastating. How could a woman who comes of age on an English-run island where skin color largely determines class—as Hortense herself recounts: “They took me from my mummy because, with my golden skin, everyone agreed that I would have a golden future”—imagine that England itself will be any different? How could a graduate of a Kingston teacher-training college staffed by Englishwomen such as Miss Newman, “who believed coloured girls had a better understanding of [warts], being less civilised and closer to nature,” not expect to encounter such attitudes in England? And given that she was denied a teaching post at the Church of England School in Kingston—despite graduating from the teacher-training college—wouldn’t Hortense have been a bit less self-assured about being hired as a teacher in London?

At the end of the day, however, it is only the degree of ingenuousness on the part of Hortense (not so much Gilbert) that may seem exaggerated. After all, the products of an educational system that diligently inculcated in students blind love and respect for a paradisiacal England could hardly escape without some of this propaganda leaving its mark. And subsequent experiences in the metropole could not but have been humiliating, even for those few who—unlike Gilbert and Hortense—had been so prudent as to steel themselves for disappointment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the relentless manner in which the “Mother Country” disabuses Gilbert and later Hortense of their optimism, shattering their illusions and grinding down their self-esteem, proves to be Small Island’s most important feature. In addition to providing the story with substantial dramatic ballast, the racism they endure sheds light on the culture and values of a very different Britain from that of today. Time will tell, but so rich and vivid is Levy’s portrayal of newly arrived Caribbeans in postwar Britain that Small Island may well become the definitive work of fiction on the subject. When one considers the competition from the likes of Lamming, Selvon, and Phillips, together with the fact that the author was born several years after the period chronicled, this stands as a major literary and historical achievement. Indeed, quaint verbal symmetry aside, calling Small Island a small masterpiece would be quite apt, for in addition to being an absolutely riveting story—the chief consideration for a novel—it stands as the fitting culmination of over half a century’s attempts to capture the dreams, disappointments, failures, and ultimately the stoic resilience of the pioneer Windrush generation.

NBCC member Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer in Beirut, Lebanon.