Guess what – another quite popular book that I didn’t realise was about war!
SmallIsland alternates between four voices: Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie and Bernard. Gilbert signed up from Jamaica to fight alongside Britain in WWII, promised a new life after victory that never quite materialises. When his wife, Hortense, joins him in London, she finds a drab, hostile city that doesn’t welcome her as she had expected. Bernard, who never came home from the war when expected, is struggling to find a place for himself in post-war Britain – and in his own home, while his abandoned wife Queenie has been forced to take in Jamaican lodgers to scrape by, despite the chagrin she faces from the rest of the street.
I found this a rather refreshing change of pace after Birdsong and A Hundred Years of Solitude because despite some rather harrowing scenes where you cringe at a character’s ignorance or insensitivity, this is practically a comedy compared to those. There are several laugh out loud moments, and barely a page went by when I didn’t smile to myself because of a dry comment made by Gilbert, or a sharp judgement of some ill-bred Londoner from the haughty Hortense. The writing is sharp and observant: the characters come to life slowly but surely and in among the laughs are some truly heartbreaking moments as each of the characters is brought face to face with a reality that’s harshly different from the future they had imagined.