In June 1948, the S.S. Empire Windrush sailed in to London's Tilbury docks carrying 492 men from the West Indies. In search of a better life, they were the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. The novelist Andrea Levy's father was on that ship, and in her previous books she has written about the children of "the Windrush generation" and their efforts to find a way of being both black and British. Now, in her fourth novel, "Small Island," which last year won both the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, she has turned to the struggles of the pioneering generation itself.
Gilbert Joseph is a Jamaican who served in the R.A.F. in Britain during the war and returns there on the Windrush. After taking up lodgings in the house of Queenie Bligh, a working-class Englishwoman, he is joined at the beginning of the novel by his new bride, Hortense. Gilbert and Hortense's attempts to adjust not only to a new country but to each other are soon disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Queenie's husband, Bernard, whose whereabouts since his discharge from the army, two years earlier, have been a mystery to everyone.
Although all four characters take turns telling their stories, the narrative momentum of "Small Island" is slight; the present action occurs over a few days in 1948, but a great deal of the novel takes place in a time zone Levy simply labels "Before." As if to make up for this lack of incident, toward the end of the novel Levy has Queenie spring a surprise on the other characters -- one that catches the reader off guard as well. Yet Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie and Bernard remain trapped in their own stories; they are more sympathetic to us than they are to one another.
"Small island" is how the inhabitants of Jamaica, the largest island in the West Indies, refer to the rest of the Caribbean. But when Gilbert returns to Jamaica after the war, he understands for the first time that he too is a small islander -- a realization that links him (although he doesn't know it) to Bernard, who has also been changed by his wartime experiences.
Horrified to find "wogs" as lodgers in his own home, Bernard is also disappointed by home itself. "England had shrunk," he tells us. "It was smaller than the place I'd left." A preachier novel would find some way of making both men realize what they have in common (and so mitigate Bernard's racism), but "Small Island" is too subtle -- and too true to life -- for that.
Instead, Gilbert's experiences as a West Indian in the R.A.F. are contrasted with the lot of black G.I.'s in the United States forces: American bases are strictly segregated, black and white G.I.'s are given passes for leave on different days. At first glance, to be a subject of the British Empire is to have "superior black skin."
Levy's greatest achievement in "Small Island" is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals. Gilbert is astonished to discover that although he can reel off the names of England's canals and list the major industries of each English town, most English people can't even find Jamaica on a map. "How come England did not know me?" he asks. Hortense's training as a teacher counts for nothing in England, and while she may have won a prize for reciting Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" at school, she can't make herself understood by a London taxi driver.
Levy understands the complex relationship between color and class. Light-skinned Hortense has been brought up as a lady, and she initially despises Gilbert for his coarser manners. She also looks down on Queenie for being less educated than she is. The slow development of Hortense's respect for her husband as she begins to understand the challenges he faces (many of which she will confront herself) is one of the most moving aspects of the book. "Small Island" is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope.