Stranded on Small Island

Katie joined our Readers Group upon its first meeting, in 2017. Here, Katie reflects on Andrea Levy’s Small Island and overcoming initial apprehension of the novel to immerse herself in the story

We always have a good discussion at Inkwell Readers Group, but I approached Small Island by Andrea Levy with less enthusiasm than other books we’ve read. I thought it might be depressing and that I might have read similar stories and novels before. However, I cracked on with the book and liked the opening enough to carry on reading.

Small Island is a long book, with huge detail, spanning a number of years and locations. Levy takes you deep into the minds of believable, rounded characters and their most intimate thoughts, delving into the intricacies of marriages and familial relationships with both poignancy and humour.  Through specific detail, she is able to evoke vast, historical events and the experiences of those involved in them in a way that is, I believe, original. By capturing the experiences of the Windrush generation , as well the partners of service personnel on the Home Front, not only does she explore these and the permutations of other events during that time, but she also weaves them into a cohesive narrative (one might argue the ‘weave’ occasionally goes too far, but that would be giving away spoilers).

I’ve read several stories and reports about wartime experiences, but Levy’s novel contained subtleties that made me think about these experiences in a new light: the experience of service personnel fighting for a country that views them as ‘other;’ or the widowed, homeless mother with a family to support, shunned from the streets due to her class status. Although shocking, the idiocy of this behaviour is regularly underlined by Levy comically:

‘He mouthed the last words with the slow exaggeration I generally reserved for the teaching of small children. It occurred to me then that white men who worked were made to work because they were fools.’

This is when Hortense must spell our her destination to the taxi driver because he can’t understand her. What embellishes the humour though, is how Levy allows us to see the experience from Hortense’s viewpoint before switching to a different narrative perspective, giving an opportunity for the reader to witness an omniscient view not always accessible in life. Another is example is when Gilbert is subject to racism at work. The reader understands why he is bad-tempered and out-of-character when he gets home, but we can also see why his wife is extremely frustrated with his behaviour. Yet, the reader witnessed the racist incident and his wife didn’t. It’s a reminder of our lack of knowledge in our own relationships and how an omniscient view isn’t accessible to those closest to us.

Half way through the book, I realised that I’d only finish in time for the Readers Group meeting if I listened to it whilst I walked, squeezing the narrative into my daily life. I switched to an audio version that was narrated, no less, by the author herself.  The characters are well depicted in the book, even whilst reading, but listening to the narration brought them to life even more: I heard accents I had not fully recreated in my mind and the comic timing of the narrator was heightened. Now, I could read the book in less time by listening, but still enjoying my absorption in the audio version (admittedly, it was more intense experience).

As I approached the last section of the book, I saw that the National Theatre’s adaptation of Small Island was being broadcast in the local cinema. Will the play be a disappointment, I asked myself? Will the play only capture the ‘essence’ because, as a play, surely, it wouldn’t be able to convey the humour or the hypocrisy of the book? The play had great reviews though, so I thought it would be interesting to see how they dealt with these challenges.

Notably, they reduced the time spent with one of the main characters, Bernard, but the play gave flesh to the novel in other ways for me; through the set, music, and acting.  Helen Edmundson’s adaptation also realised some of the characters that I hadn’t devoted as much attention to whilst reading the book (Celia and Elwood), and Edmundson conveyed through a look, an outfit, tone, and body language, so much the book couldn’t.

Seeing and hearing the story through these other two mediums added to the richness of the text and, for a novel that I wasn’t enthusiastic about at the start, I ultimately loved, immersing myself in it, not just by reading. This is one of the beauties of the readers’ group:  I am introduced to books that I might not otherwise read and authors that I now want to read more.

On the Reading List

February: Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

March: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

April: The Case of Comrade Tulyalev by Victor Serge

May: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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