Small Island (novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Small Island
First UK edition
AuthorAndrea Levy
PublisherHeadline Review
AwardsOrange Prize for Fiction
Whitbread Book of the Year
Commonwealth Writers' Prize
Preceded byFruit of the Lemon 
Followed byThe Long Song 
For the miniseries based on this novel, see Small Island (TV film).

Small Island is a 2004 prize-winning novel by British author Andrea Levy, her fourth novel. It was published by Headline Review to critical success,[1] being described in The Guardian by Mike Phillips as Levy's "big book".[2] Levy herself said in 2004: "When I started Small Island I didn’t intend to write about the war. I wanted to start in 1948 with two women, one white, one black, in a house in Earls Court, but when I asked myself, 'Who are these people and how did they get here?' I realised that 1948 was so very close to the war that nothing made sense without it. If every writer in Britain were to write about the war years there would still be stories to be told, and none of us would have come close to what really happened. It was such an amazing schism in the middle of a century. And Caribbean people got left out of the telling of that story, so I am attempting to put them back into it. But I am not telling it from only a Jamaican point of view. I want to tell stories from the black and white experience. It is a shared history."[3]

In 2009 The Guardian selected Small Island as one of the defining books of the decade.[4] It won three awards: the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.[5][6]

The novel was adapted for television in two parts by the BBC in 2009.[7] A stage adaptation by Helen Edmundson[8] opened at the National Theatre in April 2019[9] and the production was discussed with members of the cast on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour in May 2019.[10]


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. Mainly set in 1948, the plot 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 had 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 viewpoints, it is achronological, skipping around to discuss each character's life before the outbreak of WWII.

Character summaries[edit]

  • 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 book's climax.[1]


The novel has won a number of prizes including:

Critical reception[edit]

On 5 November 2019 BBC News included Small Island on its list of the 100 most influential novels.[15]


  1. ^ Allardice, Lisa (21 January 2005). "Profile: Andrea Levy". The Guardian.
  2. ^ Phillips, Mike (14 February 2004). "Roots manoeuvre". The Guardian.
  3. ^ Salandy-Brown, Marina, "ANDREA LEVY: 'THIS WAS NOT A SMALL STORY'", Caribbean Beat, Issue 70 (November/December 2004).
  4. ^ "Your books of the decade: What we were reading", London: The Guardian, 5 December 2009. Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  5. ^ Ezard, John (4 October 2005). "Small Island novel wins biggest Orange prize". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  6. ^ "Author Levy wins best of the best". BBC News. 3 October 2005. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  7. ^ Dennis, Tony (11 December 2009). "Small Island is a missed opportunity". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  8. ^ Brown, Mark (3 October 2018). "Andrea Levy's Small Island novel to be staged next year". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  9. ^ "Small Island", Olivier Theatre, National Theatre.
  10. ^ Presenter: Jenni Murray (2 May 2019). "Small Island, Esther Wojcicki, Natalie Haynes". Woman's Hour. 21:55 minutes in. BBC. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  11. ^ Orange Prize for Fiction Archive "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 January 2012. Retrieved 1 December 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), Orange Prize for Fiction website. Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  12. ^ Brace, Marianne (12 June 2004). "Andrea Levy: Notes from a small island". The Independent. Retrieved 7 June 2009.
  13. ^ Ezard, John (6 January 2005). "Whitbread novel prize is double for Levy". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  14. ^ "Andrea Levy", Writers, British Council – Literature. Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  15. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 2019-11-05. Retrieved 2019-11-10. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.

External links[edit]