Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Small Island’s review

Small Island by Andrea Lévy is part of my Caribbean Literature course this year along with Merle Hodge’s Crick, Crack Monkey. When I first went to the library, Small Island was the most appealing (despite its length) and I decided to give it a try first.

Small Island

Summary, from Book Depository:

It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do? Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.

An important feature of this book is that it has five different narrators that enrich the text. They never overlap each other (it would make slow reading) but they provide different opinions on the same situation. Because of their different origins, education and families, they represent London’s multicultural background and what it meant for the old regime to accept that English people were not only blue-eyed, fair-haired WASPS.

In general, I liked the book: it makes easy, light but worth reading. The story is plausible and seems historically justified. It will transport you to an England of unrest, destruction and changes and how it was perceived by different people. However, like The Secret River, this book has some best-seller features that make it easy but pleasant reading: it will inform the reader about the historical context but, being the work of an English woman (Levy’s parents came from Jamaica in 1948) she is trying to image how it was for her parents to be away from home. It is not her personal experience but, still, very interesting. Compared to Kincaid’s this is a happier, less angry writing.

Dealing with postcolonialism, this book presents an important part of postcolonial theory: what Homi Bhabha called mimic men. Those mimic men (and women) are non-English people who were taught to be English (because they were NOT) and will never be. This is a bone of contention: would you teach an English person how to be English? The answer is you will not. Then, by trying to Anglisice their colonisers, the English were already putting a limit to their identities. One of our readers, provided us yesterday with a clear example of this technique, when, even in 2011 India, she is praised for speaking such good English.

SPOILER: In the novel, this happens to Hortense: a high class Jamaican girl, she is the best student of her class and dreams of becoming a teacher. But, when she arrives to England, she is not allowed to teach English children… because of the colour of her skin. Her husband, Gilbert, reflects on this when he remembers an English friend who was allowed to teach history and his skills were inferior to his’, someone who had not completed the course for teaching. END OF SPOILER.

So, these mimic people also bring up the question of passing for. Based on stereotypes, the passing for means you can pass for another kind of person according to your external appearance. For example, a redheaded Italian or French can pass for being Irish (because all Irish have red head… right?).

Have you read this novel or seen the BBC Series adaptation? If not, what do you think of the issues of mimicry and passing for? Have you ever been mistaken for another national stereotype? Did you feel anything? Offended? Praised?



  • Jillian

    Reminds me of Friedrich Bhaer in Little Women, who was considered a respected professor in Berlin, and is considered a surprisingly smart tutor, in New York. He’s seen as clumsy in America, whereas in Germany, he was brilliant.

  • amanda

    I don’t think I’ve ever been mistaken for any national stereotype other than what I am (well, other than being asked if I speak German–I don’t). My brother has a Philipina-American friend who faces this, however. I think she’s actually amused by it–sometimes she will encounter someone who thinks they need to speak slowly because she’s Asian, but she enjoys watching their surprise when she responds in a Midwest US accent!

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