- For the miniseries based on this novel, see Small Island (TV film).
The novel is based on four main characters: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard and the story is told from each of their points of view. Its main plot is set in 1948 and focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants, who, escaping economic hardship on their own "small island," move to England, the Mother Country, for which the men have fought during World War II. While the novel focuses on the narratives of Gilbert and Hortense as they adjust to life in England, after a reception that is not quite the warm embrace that they have hoped for, the interracial relationship between Queenie and Michael is central to the plot and the connections that are established between all of the characters. As the story is narrated from various view points, it is achronological, skipping around to discuss each character's life before the outbreak of WWII.
- Queenie Bligh: The level-headed character in the book. She is fair, open-minded and has a very big and kind heart. After her husband, Bernard, left for the war she opened her house for servicemen, which is when she met Gilbert. She is symbolic of England: Queenie comes with reference to the royal family (she was also christened Victoria - after Queen Victoria) and Bligh comes from Blighty, a slightly dated word for England.
- Hortense: A very well-mannered woman who looks down her nose at other people. She comes from Jamaica and has moved to England with hopes of becoming a teacher, but she has a certain naiveté about what to expect when she arrives. Having been brought up in British colonial Jamaica, she has been taught very many exaggerated facts about the niceties of English living. It becomes quite ironic as she turns out to be more polite and well spoken than anyone she meets, despite being a little snobbish.
- Michael Roberts: A Jamaican Air Force serviceman who grows up alongside Hortense. Michael is a charming and charismatic man, and his mischievous nature cause him problems with his religious father and the community in which he lives. When he leaves for the Air Force he stays at Queenie's boarding house in England and begins a relationship with her, resulting in Queenie's pregnancy. Queenie and Michael's relationship is brief and he is never aware of the baby, and neither Queenie or Hortense ever find out that they both know Michael.
- Gilbert Joseph: A lovable and funny character who is always trying his hardest to please everyone. Very clumsy but honest, he is one of the more likable characters. He is quite laid back, but extremely intimidated by Hortense, his wife.
- Bernard Bligh: An extremely reserved, almost Aspergers syndrome-type character who interacts very poorly with almost everyone , until the RAF which forces interaction upon him. He is however , and albeit awkwardly, in love with his wife Queenie, though their sexual life is , largely due to him, not good, a fact which has ramifications later. He has a deep seated streak of racism and while Queenie appears to be free of this in some ways, both have complicated interactions with race, culminating in the books climax c .
The novel has won a number of prizes including:
- Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004.
- Whitbread Book of the Year in 2004.
- Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) in 2005.
- Smallest Island Award in 2003
- Andrea Levy discusses Small Island on the BBC's World Book Club
- Small Island character profile on the BBC One Website
- 'Your books of the decade: What we were reading' (2009-12-05), , London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-06.
- Orange Prize for Fiction Archive , Orange Prize for Fiction website. Retrieved 2012-02-06.
- Brace, Marianne (2004-06-12). "Andrea Levy: Notes from a small island". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- Ezard, John (2005-01-06). "Whitbread novel prize is double for Levy". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-06-07.
- 'Writers: Andrea Levy', , British Council Arts website. Retrieved 2012-02-06.