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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January, 2005, 08:14 GMT
Whitbread review: Small Island
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News

Small Island by Andrea Levy has won the Whitbread Novel award and will now compete with four other category winners for the Whitbread Book of Year title on 25 January.
Andrea Levy
Andrea Levy has already won the Orange Prize for Small Island

Soldiers from the Caribbean, Africa and India formed a vital part of the UK's war effort during World War II.

But when they came to settle in the UK after the conflict, their reward was a chilly welcome.

Heads turned at the sight of a West Indian, and as mere "guests" they were advised to walk in the road if approached by a white Briton.

This is the world Andrea Levy uncovers in Small Island.

The book looks at Jamaica's involvement in World War II and the subsequent flood of immigrants to Britain after Germany's defeat.

The story switches between the perspectives of Jamaican immigrants Gilbert and Hortense, who have settled in London, to landlady Queenie and her conservative, stuttering husband Bernard.

While an effective way of presenting a range of viewpoints, it can be disruptive to follow four protagonists.

The reader will most probably start preferring particular characters' narratives, leading to disappointment when they are switched and needing to warm to someone else.


But, individually, they are all convincing and engaging stories written in a way that makes you hear the characters' accents and understand their thoughts.

All four well-rounded characters have elements to love and others that make you want to shake them.

But Levy breaks them down so deftly that, even if you despair of their actions, you can see how they came to pass.

We understand why Bernard acts so unreasonably when he returns from a wholly unhappy time fighting in India to find his home let out to people from the other side of the world.

Equally, we appreciate just how Hortense can despise Gilbert for bringing her into these rooms when she has been led to believe that the UK is a land of plenty where she will be welcomed like a long-lost relative.

The characters' relationships alone would make an interesting novel but set against a little-explored theme in Britain's history, they become fascinating.

Hugh Grant joins Whitbread panel
15 Dec 04 |  Entertainment
Booker winner up for Whitbread
09 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
Levy 'thrilled' by Orange award
09 Jun 04 |  Entertainment


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