Van has finished reading…Small Island by Andrea Levy

4 Dec

It’s Queenie’s voice more than any other that makes this book for me. It would have been so easy to have given us an all-accepting loveable face against which Andrea Levy could mirror the ignorance and stupidity that levelled such indignity against those who are different. But it would ring hollow. Instead, we have a character who feels like a person, shaped by her circumstance and bound by her choices. There’s nothing saintly about Queenie, even as a child prepared to taunt starving miner’s children in the playground with the tasty pork pie she has for her lunch.

It’s unsurprising that it’s only Bernard, Queenie’s husband – a marriage of necessity on her part – who’s not looking for something else, something new or better. With the surname Bligh (for Blighty, perhaps?) he stands, after all, as representative of a nation that saw itself a pinnacle among its subject colonies. Rather Bernard is looking for the past, a sweeping away of all the madness brought by war, a chance to go back to how it was. I could believe that it’s that closing scene, that last confrontation between the four protagonists that was the fuel for the whole tale, those stories spiralling into the past and the future from that point of impact. On the other side there is Hortense with her belief in the general rightness of things and her affected manners; Gilbert and his happy-go-lucky nature – so tested to the limits – and his sheer determination to thrive. It’s in this very scene that Hortense sees him, almost for the first time, as something other than a common man. How ironic that his impassioned logic goes unrecognised by Bernard. After a colony’s commitment and sacrifice, never was their expectation and disillusionment so succinctly summarised. Even in the depths of his prejudice, Bernard cannot understand the impediment in claiming what he sees as his by association. And what he sees, what they all see wrapped up there between them is the future Perhaps that’s Queenie’s one selfless act, that letting go despite every instinct that tells her not to.


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