Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Small Island: a novel / by Andrea Levy

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

Set mainly in the British Empire of 1948, this story of emigration, loss, and love follows four characters -- two Jamaican and two Britons, struggling to find peace in postwar England. Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with humor and tenderness, with a backdrop of bombed out houses and post-wartime conditions.

The Author's Web Site
Small Island Read 2007:


The New York Times, April 3, 2007 (requires free login)
Andrea Levy's award-winning novel, Small Island, deftly brings two bleak families into crisp focus. First a Jamaican family, including the well-intentioned Gilbert, who can never manage to say or do exactly the right thing; Romeo Michael, who leaves a wake of women in his path; and finally, Hortense, whose primness belies her huge ambition to become English in every way possible. The other unhappy family is English, starting with Queenie, who escapes the drudgery of being a butcher's daughter only to marry a dull banker. As the chapters reverse chronology and the two groups collide and finally mesh, the book unfolds through time like a photo album, and Levy captures the struggle between class, race, and sex with a humor and tenderness that is both authentic and bracing. The book is cinematic in the best way--lighting up London's bombed-out houses and wartime existence with clarity and verve while never losing her character's voice or story. --Meg Halverson --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. After winning the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, Levy's captivating fourth novel sweeps into a U.S. edition with much-deserved literary fanfare. Set mainly in the British Empire of 1948, this story of emigration, loss and love follows four characters—two Jamaicans and two Britons—as they struggle to find peace in postwar England. After serving in the RAF, Jamaican Gilbert Joseph finds life in his native country has become too small for him. But in order to return to England, he must marry Hortense Roberts—she's got enough money for his passage—and then set up house for them in London. The pair move in with Queenie Bligh, whose husband, Bernard, hasn't returned from his wartime post in India. But when does Bernard turn up, he is not pleased to find black immigrants living in his house. This deceptively simple plot poises the characters over a yawning abyss of colonialism, racism, war and the everyday pain that people inflict on one another. Levy allows readers to see events from each of the four character's' point of view, lightly demonstrating both the subjectivity of truth and the rationalizing lies that people tell themselves when they are doing wrong. None of the characters is perfectly sympathetic, but all are achingly human. When Gilbert realizes that his pride in the British Empire is not reciprocated, he wonders, "How come England did not know me?" His question haunts the story as it moves back and forth in time and space to show how the people of two small islands become inextricably bound together. Agent, David Grossman. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–This novel examines class, race, and prejudice in London in 1948, when a new multiracial England began to form. Through four principal narrators comprising two married couples, the author brings to life the dreams and fears of a generation. Gilbert, a Jamaican newlywed who served in the RAF during World War II, hopes for a prosperous future in London, though his experience of racial discrimination tells him this won't be achieved easily. His young wife, Hortense, is more naive. Arriving from the colonies prepared to take up a teaching career, she is soon in despair over rude rejections and her struggle to make herself understood, literally and figuratively, by white working-class neighbors who don't seem to comprehend the pristine English she learned on her home island. Even the small comforts provided by their affable landlady are soured when Queenie's long-missing husband returns and is less than pleased to meet the black boarders. As these mismatched pairs relate their sides of the story, the author's linguistic skill pitches their voices perfectly within time and place. Though none of the characters is very likable, all are nuanced personalities who make the book intriguing and believable throughout, even a final plot twist involving a coincidence of Dickensian proportions. Affecting, funny, and sad, this is a masterful depiction of a society on the verge of major changes.–Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From The New Yorker
In the shabby remnants of post-blitz London, three near-strangers find themselves in a single house. Queenie Bligh is a spirited Yorkshirewoman waiting for her husband to return from the war and taking in tenants to make ends meet. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican R.A.F. veteran, is struggling to establish himself in England, a country that he'd been taught was his motherland but which regards him as an interloper; his bride, Hortense, has just arrived in London and is bewildered that her education and class can't transcend the color of her skin. The narrative voice jumps between the characters, a technique that embeds familiar cultural observations in closely observed and surprising lives. If the plot sometimes verges on the operatic, Levy's writing deftly illuminates the complex and contradictory motives behind each character's behavior.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From The Washington Post's Book World/
Following the quiet but critical success of Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), Never Far From Nowhere (1996) and Fruit of the Lemon (1999), British novelist Andrea Levy's fourth book, Small Island -- the first to be published in the United States -- is a breakthrough of sorts. Each predecessor has drawn to varying degrees upon Levy's experiences growing up in London as the daughter of first-generation, postwar Jamaican immigrants, and has mined the complicated landscape of what it means to be black and British both before and after the vogues for "Cool Britannia" and all things multicultural. Yet her early books went unheralded by the sort of media hype and glossy fanfare that greeted Zadie Smith's clever first novel, White Teeth, in 2000 and, to a lesser degree, Hari Kunzru's masterful debut, The Impressionist, in 2002.

Small Island represents an arrival (or is it a "departure"?) of a particular kind, then; despite being, and I would add very much mistakenly, omitted from the Man Booker long list in 2004, the novel has since been showered with a dazzling array of literary accolades -- the Orange Prize (over the likes of Margaret Atwood and Rose Tremain), the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and most recently the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, which places Levy in the esteemed company of such former winners as Nobel laureates V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Prize-winning is an arbitrary sport, but the recognition bestowed upon Levy's work is a testament to her talents -- her formidable craft and staying power in an otherwise faddish business.

Small Island is free of the prosaic affectations that are often the hallmark of celebrated authorship; there are no postmodern pyrotechnics or other gimmicky hoops to jump through. Rather, Levy tells a good story, and she tells it well -- using narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew. Levy's novel is no mere flight of fantasy, for it is rooted in the past and mired in the complicated stuff of empire. At the same time the memorable characters are radically unhinged from any sense of national fixity as their lives become intermeshed in strangely unexpected yet predictable ways.

Set intermittently in postwar London, the narrative centers on the interactions between two couples, the determined Jamaican newlyweds Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, and the quintessentially English Queenie (named for Victoria, former Empress of India) and her phenomenally dull husband, Bernard Bligh. Gilbert, whom Queenie had known when he was an R.A.F serviceman during the war, takes up residence in her Earls Court rooming house as she awaits Bernard's delayed return from an overseas posting. While Gilbert's good fortune in finding Queenie again hints at the possibility of stabilized race relations, albeit ones tinged with well-meaning faux-pas and unintended prejudices, Hortense's arrival sets in motion the events and reflections that will culminate in the forging of a postcolonial portrait that is at once familial and historical.

Although the main action of Small Island takes place over a few weeks, Levy splits the novel into "Before" and "1948," the latter moment denoting a powerful geopolitical watershed. The year marked the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury and the disembarkation of 492 Caribbean subjects on the not-so-welcoming shores of the mother country, forever changing that nation's singular sense of itself. As well, 1948 witnessed the momentous aftermath of Indian independence and partition -- the imperial map coming apart at the seams. One particularly successful aspect of the novel is Levy's ability to reflect upon this larger picture while paying close attention to the intricacies of her characters' quotidian experiences with a wry and penetrating humor.

The idea of smallness in the title thus speaks to the complicated ways in which the world begins to contract for all concerned. "Small island" is a playful, belittling aspersion Jamaicans like to cast upon their smaller West Indian neighbors. Yet when Gilbert returns home after his duty abroad, his horizons perceptibly broadened, he discovers with alarm that the "island of Jamaica was no universe." Similarly, Bernard's tragicomic arrival back in London prompts his curmudgeonly surprise that "England had shrunk. It was smaller than the place I'd left." His vehement distaste for the presence of "darkies" in his house further heightens the provincialism and vulgar racisms that we've seen as Gilbert and Hortense -- for all their cosmopolitan aspirations, middle-class sensibilities, and colonial learning -- struggle against the daily inequities of institutionalized discrimination. Small Island's temporal dynamics and the artfully choreographed connections among the various first-person voices propel the reader forward through differing perspectives and revelations. One possible flaw is that the novel turns on a huge coincidence, which some readers may find too forced, too sentimentally contrived. Granted, this is a well-worn device with its near-Dickensian reliance on the mechanics of plot, but how better, perhaps, to imagine and unpack the complex interlocutions of a wide world writ small?

Reviewed by Louise Bernard
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine
Levy, the child of parents who sailed from the Caribbean in the first wave of postwar immigration, fictionalizes the immigrant experience in her fourth novel. Relying on memoirs and oral histories, she describes in heartwrenching detail the lives of four individuals in 1948 England. Her plain, humorous style underscores the gravity and immediacy of her themes. She pens deep, convincing characters-Queenie speaks like a true Londoner; Bernard sounds like he served in India. The couples’ interactions are often predictable-Levy “manoeuvred her characters into the right place at the right time”-and the range of viewpoints sometimes disorients. Yet, these flaws barely diminish the power of this frank representation of the racism and disappointment of the era. “This is,” The Guardian concludes, “Andrea Levy’s big book.”

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Other related features:

1. Awards (Best Fiction) - Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> Commonwealth Writers' Prize -> Best Book

2. Awards (Best Fiction) - Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread Book Award) -> Novel category

3. Awards (Best Fiction) - Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction

4. What We're Reading - What Nancy Pearl Read
ISBNs Associated with this Title:

1417685891 : Glued Binding
0312424671 : Paperback

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Playing for Pizza

Grisham takes fictional Browns QB to Italy
Thursday, October 25, 2007 4:12 AM
By Gary Budzak

(Doubleday, $21.95) by John Grisham
Former Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Charlie Frye and Rick Dockery can relate: One bad game, and the Browns say bye-bye.
Frye was the Browns' starter going into this season, but a bad first half in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers got him dealt to the Seattle Seahawks days later. Dockery was mopping up in the American Football Conference championship game against the Denver Broncos and somehow gave the game away. Next stop for Dockery: the Parma Panthers -- in Italy, not Ohio.
Frye is real, of course, and Dockery is a figment of John Grisham's imagination. He stars in the latest Grisham novel, Playing for Pizza -- a departure from the author's usual legal thrillers.
Dockery's sudden departure echoes that of Frye. Had the Browns management read Grisham's galleys?
Dockery, a journeyman player, played so badly that he needs not only a job but a way out of town for his safety -- not to mention a paternity issue. His agent suggests Italy, where at least Dockery would still be able to play football.
The Italians play the American form of the game,
although their best teams probably couldn't beat Mount Union College. Each team is allowed three American ringers, and Dockery is wanted despite his bungling against the Broncos.
Dockery's new coach is American, but his teammates are mostly Italian. A running back called Franco (after Steelers great Franco Harris) shows Dockery highlights of his running. Dockery asks whether the film is in slow motion.
In addition to assimilating with the Panthers, fish-out-of-water Dockery also has to adjust to Italian culture: driving a stick-shift car, parking in tiny spots and pacing himself during multicourse dinners. Can an American jock learn to appreciate real Parmesan cheese, Italian opera and the architecture and history of castles and cathedrals? Will he end his one-night stands and find a mate? And will he finally be a game winner?
Grisham hung out with and used the real Parma Panthers to legitimize and add passion to his page turner. Readers care about Dockery and root for him and the Panthers. If only Charlie Frye could have similar luck with the Seahawks.
Among the penalties, however, is a plotline that sends a Cleveland sportswriter to cover Dockery's games in Italy. In these crunch times for newspapers, a freelancer in Italy would e-mail a story to the paper,
if the paper bothered covering it at all.
But that minor complaint isn't enough to keep the highly readable story out of the end zone.