Five years ago I bought Small Island by Andrea Levy because it won the Orange Prize for the best work of fiction by a woman published in the UK in 2004. I had never heard of Levy or the book, but I knew a few hardy souls had plowed through a mountain of contenders.* The book’s other advantages: I found it at a used book sale [=cheap] in this country [=no luggage space required]. In my defense, with so many books and so little time, how else should I choose my reading material?
Last month when I was looking for something to read, I took the book off the shelf where it had been waiting very patiently. The description sounded familiar: “Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he find himself treated very differently…Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change…Levy handles the weight themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.”
It sounded familiar because I had just watched a Foyle’s War episode on this very subject.* What are the odds of art imitating art? [Oscar or Lucinda would probably know.] And with some similar plot threads, what are the odds that the writer of Foyle’s War drew inspiration from Small Island?
I found the story a little slow to get into at first, but being familiar with the historical period helped pull me in. In a rooming house, people from one small island learn to adjust to life on another small island. Hopes and dreams bump up against post-war prejudices. Before long, I found myself hooked on the characters, the dialogue, and the lively scenes.
All in all, it was a satisfying and sympathetic read.
A fascinating account by one of the prize jurors that year
Competition included novels by Monica Ali, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison and Shirley Hazzard.
*Foyle’s War, Season Six [Season Seven in the UK], Episode 2, ‘Killing Time’