Small Island is a popular, well-beloved title in the UK and amongst Caribbean readers worldwide. I lived in Canada when Headline Review released Andrea Levy's fourth novel, set primarily in Jamaica and England during WWII. I did not give it a second glance. Not in Canada long, yet I was already tired of immigrant narratives. They did not seem to be for me these earnest efforts to humanise The Other post 9/11, the draining reminders of why many wanted or needed to leave home in the first place.
Mike Phillips in The UK Guardian positioned Levy's novel in the middle of "a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity." This is both valid and too facile a take. Small Island had a lot to teach me, the biggest being that, before Jamaica's independence, the assumptions inherent in Phillips' description did not exist.
When we talk about migration, whether pro- or anti-, migrants are generally seen as outsiders seeking entry, even when they are connected as outsiders whose countries were or still are colonies. Immigrant activists emphasize our shared humanity as a counter. But the historical fact that Levy emphasised was that the Anglo-Caribbean was Britain. From the Anglo-Caribbean peoples' perspective at that time, they were not "affecting" British identity—they were British.
Every time I read a scene in which Gilbert, a Jamaican airman in the Royal Air Force, identified as British I jerked my head in confusion. It wasn't until his patient explanation to two African American soldiers in the segregated US army that I understood.
“‘...Britain is Jamaica’s Mother Country. But we are all part of the Empire.’
‘Oh.’ Both nodded, both had not one clue what I was talking about. ‘The Empire, you say. That wouldn’t be the place in London where there was a picture show?’
I tried explaining: ‘The British own the island of Jamaica, it is in the Caribbean Sea and we, the people of Jamaica, are all British because we are her subjects.’
‘Jamaica is a colony. Britain is our Mother Country. We are British but we live in Jamaica.’”
The cliché "Mother Country" title grew into renewed significance as Gilbert's consistent second place tethering of his Jamaican-ness to this umbilical relationship, this earnest belief that England was his country, made me less confused, more traumatised.
From my grandfather to my mother, to me, I am of the first generation born post-independence. And in 2004, this book's story was brand new information to too many British in the same way Gilbert's existence in the British army was new, impossible to understand information to...everyone in 1948 except West Indians when the HMT Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury Docks in Essex, England.
Remember, the millions uprooted, stolen, sold, enslaved, raped, tortured, slaughtered, to create that relationship.
For me, Small Island is not an "immigrant novel." It makes more sense to me as a WWII novel, written in the elegant, accessible style often found in popular historical fiction. (Yes, I know it can be both.) As Rachel Slater wrote in Politics and Culture:
'Levy lays bare the myth that London at war was a time of togetherness and understanding across social barriers and demonstrates that those cultural walls stood firm despite the bombs that rained upon the city.'
Levy centred the "mean" White characters, White writers would normally insert as minor players, foils for more likeable flawed-but-admirable White protagonists. The Black Jamaicans were no more or less fair but Levy made plain the stark difference in what behaviour the colonial system engendered in them vs British Whites.
I am left to wonder what is the point to this book's well-loved, popular status—films and theatre adaptations released to rave views—when I look at what Britain still is, what Britain still does. What are we doing with any of the knowledge writers work to impart?
By Andrea Levy
466 pages. 2004.
Buy it here.