Small Island Summary

Andrea Levy

Small Island

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Small Island Summary

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Small Island, Andrea Levy’s 2005 historical novel, is told from the perspective of four characters: Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard. The point of view shifts frequently between these characters and across the years, spanning from just after World War I to 1948. The four characters make up two couples, one white and one black—Queenie and Bernard are married, as are Hortense and Gilbert. The prologue begins with Queenie, the white woman, as she remembers attending an international fair in England just after World War I and shaking hands with a black African man, much to the horror of other white people around her.

The narrative then shifts to 1948, and to Hortense, a black woman who has just arrived in London from her homeland of Jamaica. She goes to meet her husband, Gilbert, and is shocked by his one-room, unfurnished apartment in a house that Queenie owns. We learn of Hortense’s childhood. She was raised by her aunt and uncle and was especially close with her cousin Michael, who joins the English Royal Air Force (RAF) and leaves Jamaica. While at a teacher training college, Hortense meets Gilbert, who is visiting his hometown on an extended visit before returning to London. Hortense and Gilbert marry, with plans for Hortense to join him in London soon.

The narrative shifts to Gilbert’s backstory. As a member of the RAF, Gilbert was sent to the U.S., and the deep, violent racism there made him all the more aware of the racism in England, as well. When he returns to England, he is invited to rent a room at the house Queenie shares with her father-in-law, Arthur. Bernard, her husband, never approved of her letting out rooms (and certainly not a black man), but Bernard is overseas, having joined the RAF himself. Gilbert experiences threats against his safety while living with Arthur and Queenie. One day, they all attempt to see a movie together, but Gilbert is denied on account of his race. A fight starts, and Arthur is shot in the melee. Gilbert returns to Jamaica, where he meets Hortense. After Hortense provides money for the journey back to England, and knowing his wife’s greatest desire is to leave her “small island” (Jamaica) for a the slightly larger island of England, Gilbert returns to London, and to Queenie’s boarding house.

Back in the present, Hortense is uncomfortable in her new living space. She soon meets her landlady, Queenie. Here the reader learns Queenie’s backstory. Queenie grew up the daughter of a Yorkshire pig farmer, but yearned for a higher standard of living. As a young woman, she moves to London to stay with her aunt, who runs a candy store. She works in this store for a time, then eventually meets Bernard. Though he is controlling and not what she imagined her husband would be like, she marries him after her aunt dies. Queenie will not go back to her father’s pig farm. She and Bernard try to conceive a child but consistently fail. Bernard refuses to let Queenie work or let out rooms, though they could use the extra income. World War II begins, and the world changes in an instant. Bernard impulsively joins the RAF and is posted overseas, leaving Queenie alone with Arthur, his father, who is still shell-shocked from his soldier days in World War I. She begins to let out rooms for soldiers needing lodging. One of these soldiers is Michael, Hortense’s cousin. Queenie and Michael sleep together, and he leaves his wallet behind when he leaves for a new posting the next day. After the war ends, Queenie is still alone—Bernard has not yet come home.

Back in the present, life moves on. Gilbert gets a job as a post office driver and is subject to racist slurs. Queenie and Hortense go shopping, and Hortense is mesmerized by the sheer number of food options. Queenie and Hortense come face to face with Bernard, finally back home. Queenie is so shocked she collapses. When she recovers at home, she demands he explain where he’s been all this time. Bernard was sent to Bombay, where he made a good friend, Maxi, and eagerly awaits battle. Eventually the war ends in Europe. After the Japanese surrender, the slow process of sending the British troops home commences. Bernard stays on to help the peace in Calcutta. He is present for the Great Calcutta Killings, a 1946 event in which Hindus and Muslims slaughtered one another. There is a fire, and Maxi is killed. Bernard is forced to lie about the circumstances of the fire so that higher officials can save face. Grieving, he returns to England, but not to London. He moves to Brighton and meets Maxi’s family. After learning he doesn’t have syphilis from an Indian prostitute, as he thought, he returns home to Queenie. He moves back in to their house, but urges her to get rid of the lodgers. He wants to move to the country and start a rabbit farm.

Hortense looks for work as a teacher, but is told she isn’t qualified to teach English children. Gilbert comforts her, and they return to the house, where something is clearly wrong with Queenie and Bernard. They realize that Queenie is going into labor—she’s pregnant and has been hiding it with loose clothing. Hortense assists with the delivery and the baby boy is born perfectly healthy—and dark skinned. Bernard attacks Gilbert, assuming he’s the father, but Queenie stops him and explains that the father is Michael. He stopped by a furlough nine months back.

When they are alone, Bernard and Queenie discuss what to do with the baby. They decide that his life will be difficult regardless, but more difficult with two white parents, the constant subject of scandal and ridicule. Queenie invites Gilbert and Hortense in for tea. She hands Hortense the baby, whom she’s named Michael, and begs Hortense and Gilbert to keep the child and raise him like their own. Gilbert and Hortense agree. Queenie leaves to be comforted by her husband, and Hortense discovers 300 pounds and a photo of Queenie sewn into Michael’s clothing. The new family, Hortense, Gilbert, and baby Michael, move out of the boarding house.