Small Island by Andrea Levy is set in London in 1948 and it deals with the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies (the Windrush Generation) and how they are received and treated in Britain. This has obviously been a major cultural event of the past sixty years while I have been alive so this book fits well into my 60 Books from 60 Years challenge – even though the events of the book are before my lifetime the effects certainly aren’t.
Queenie runs a boarding house because her husband never returned from the war. She takes in boarders recently arrived in the country. Gilbert is from Jamaica and served in the RAF during the war. He is expecting Britain to show him the same welcoming face as they did when he was fighting for them but that is not proving to be the case. Hortense comes over to Britain to join Gilbert who is her husband. She is expecting a higher standard of living and more opportunities for her to pursue her career as a teacher and the reality of life in London is difficult for her.
The story moves from 1948 London back to Jamaica before the war and to Britain during hostilities. The author fills in the background to the lives of the three main characters and then adds the story of Bernard, Queenie’s husband. Along the way she shows us how promises were betrayed and how discrimination affected new arrivals in the country. She weaves the stories of all the characters together until she brings it to a clever ending.
Some of this book was funny but I found much of it sad. The whole atmosphere of the story, however, is of hope and the author is clear that all of these people will make their way in the world, even if not as they had originally intended.