“Small Island” by Andrea Levy

One of my favorite genres of books is ‘war-related’ novels. I don’t like war, oh god no, nor do I enjoy the atrocities and negative impact war has on society and people. (Even if I did, I don’t think I would admit it here…okay, bad joke) So, having fully acknowledged that I do not enjoy war, why then do I enjoy war-related novels? I find that books that deal with the diverse aspects of war, whether it is by describing the front lines and agony lived by the soldiers, or it is by dealing with the sorrows and worries of the ones left to get along with their lives at ‘home’, show sides of human beings that would not make their appearance in usual circumstances. True, mostly, I am faced with the most evil and horrifying aspects of humans that make me doubt about the theory on how people are born ‘good’. However, it is because of such moments that when a tiny glimmer of kindness and sympathy manages to squeeze its way in, the feeling of warmth it brings along has no match.

During wars and in the aftermath of wars, people have no time for deception or trickery when it comes to showing who they are. Faking becomes a luxury and I guess this is what makes war novels appealing. It’s one of those rare moments we can open the forbidden window to human nature, in its most unadorned state, and we feel wrong to judge, when all we do the rest of our lives is judge others.

The characters of “Small Island” go back and forth from their past to their present, which is the year 1948. Three years have passed since the end of the Second World War, yet how can we truly define the ‘end of the war’? Signatures on armistice documents do not turn back the clock in time for the people to go back to their lives before the war, which is what Andrea Levy tries to show throughout this book. The war has affected each and everyone of the characters, and it is in the midst of the changes the UK has gone through as well that they try to make sense of them, and find their place.

Just when I thought so many aspects of the war had been dealt with through a variety of novels, I find myself with a new one, that of Jamaica. As part of the great British Empire that was in that era, Jamaica had many volunteers serve for the ‘mother country’ during the war, only so that they could be faced with humiliation and racism. The contrast is striking, between the Jamaican volunteers as well as civilians who want to make a new life of their own in the ‘mother land’, and those very people from the ‘mother country’ who only see them as ‘darkies’ trying to invade the pureness that is the UK.

One of Andrea Levy’s abilities in this book is how she unintentionally forces the readers to laugh at someone else’s pain, mainly Hortense’s, and I ‘hate’ her for making me feel that way. Hortense is a Jamaican girl who has received a pretty good education in Jamaica and dreams of a new, decent life in London, as one of the many subjects of the Queen. She fails to see reality as it is, however, when she does get the chance to land on Britain’s soil, following Gilbert, a Jamaican soldier for the British troops. And the reader from 2012 cannot help but feeling sympathetic to the ordeals she faces, all the while trying to suppress a smile at her inability to grasp the fact she is unwanted there. It really is a painful walk that Levy forces us to go down, one where I view racism as quite natural in that era and cannot understand why Hortense cannot see what I clearly see. Meanwhile, if you think about it, why should she see it as a natural thing, when she was raised believing she was just as good as any other British ‘citizen’?

But mainly, the author’s ability in this book is to show us that people are not that simple, especially during the difficult moments such as war or after the war. Nothing is black and white and it is hard to make a clear assessment of each character, because none of them are either bad or good. The war has affected them all in some way or the other and by showing us all these different aspects, Levy reminds us, once again, the impact of war on our society.


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