Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Devouring Books: Small Island by Andrea Levy


I have a lot of feelings about Small Island. Some of them are happy feelings, some of them are cross feelings, and not a few of them are slightly 'meh' feelings, which, I think in the end override all the other ones. But we'll get to that in due course, and there's a lot here that I can talk about (lucky you!) in spite of my overriding feelings of meh-ness about the novel. Which we'll get to in due time.

SO. Small Island is essentially the story of four people, two couples, and the ways in which their lives intersect in the period after World War Two, and what it meant for Jamaican people coming over at that time, and also what it was like before and during the war. In other words, it's about a lot of things, and I feel like it almost can't make up its mind about what it wants to be. It flicks between the past and the present, because apparently knowing everything about these characters' pasts is more important than creating a good narrative of what's going on in the present.

Or maybe I'm just being really grumpy about it.

Like I said, there were good things about it. I sort of disliked all of the characters in various ways except for Gilbert, a Jamaican man who is awesome and tries his best all the time, and really really really doesn't deserve to be treated the way he is for large portions of the novel. His wife doesn't really like him, the English don't really like him, the Americans definitely don't like him... It's all just bad. But it's also good in that while I know a fair bit about segregation and am really ready to tut at America for that shameful part of their history, this made me aware that hey! Racism existed in England too, and in a really upsetting way, in that Jamaicans were raised to understand that England was 'the Mother Country' who would accept them in her loving arms at any time, only to find that they weren't really wanted by their mother at all. It's pretty sad.

All of that was really interesting, then, and I appreciated the history lesson and I LOVED Gilbert but... All of the other characters? I wasn't so much into them. Hortense (Gilbert's wife) was SO frustrating and irritating at almost all points (except right at the end), Queenie was fine as long as she was being described to someone else, but when it came to her own narration I was less interested than I wanted to be, and also a little bored. And then Bernard was just super-frustrating and his chapters were basically all about war and then his penis, so... Yeah. The less said about that the better. Frankly, my favourite character was probably the shell-shocked Arthur (Bernard's dad) and that was maybe only because he didn't have any of his own chapters to piss me off in. Also because he's the SWEETEST.

And all of this would be fine, and I could have gone a long way on Gilbert and Arthur as the only wholly likeable characters (there are chapters where they hang out together, and I'm just like 'SQUEEE!') and been fairly happy with the book if it hadn't been for The Event. Which obviously I can't talk about because it happens pretty near the end and is meant to be SHOCKING. Now, it wasn't for me because Frances already told me about it when she read it, BUT I'm also not entirely convinced it would have been shocking if I hadn't known about it so much as it being completely WTF?-like. I'm going to start a whole new paragraph to explain, without details.

So. The Event comes almost completely out of nowhere, mainly due to it happening in the present where nothing is properly set up, but still. It's a kind of unnecessary shocker, and it almost feels like Levy just throws it in there to see what happens, rather than actually having thought it through. If it was the main thing her novel was balanced on, then... I'm very worried about the novel. Also, an aspect of The Event is something that ties Queenie and Hortense together inextricably, and yet it is never discovered. Which is really annoying, because that could have been a big thing, and through it I could think of an entirely different and probably funner ending, but actually that kind of fizzled out, and anything could have happened with it. It was very frustrating.

I almost don't want to let that ruin the whole book for me, because it definitely had its moments (I even giggled a few times! Which was nice) but... It sort of did ruin the book for me, along with its unlikeable characters, and, you know, the various war things. I will always love Arthur and Gilbert, but other than those two saving graces, I can't say tons more to recommend this novel. But... It won two awards, it has to be good right? Right.

10 comments:

  1. I am very happy about this review, because now I know I was right to cull this one from the herd and keep other more awesome novels to read instead. I'm not a huge historical fiction person anyway, unless it involves History I Am Well Interested In, obviously, and even though some part of me was thinking, "BUT THE AWARDS! THE ACCOLADES! THE MANY DEVOTED FANS!" another part of me was sitting weeping in a corner going "Don't make me read it, please don't make me read it!" So now I won't. Thanks for taking the hit on that one! :P

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    1. Haha, you're so welcome! I love it when I feel iffy about a book and then someone's like 'Yeah, it sucks' and I'm like YESSSSSSSSSSS *donates book*

      But yeah. This maybe wasn't as bad as the review says because apparently I was gruuuumpy that day, but I still didn't really like it very much! Basically.

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  2. I keep seeing this book reviewed and continue to not pick it up. I've had it sitting on my shelf for years! Pathetic. Have you read the other novel she recently released (well like 2 years ago), The Long Song? I read it and enjoyed it, but it WAS SO TERRIBLY SAD. My eyes were red and puffy and I didn't want to admit it was due to book reading. Anyway. I'm going to seriously try to tackle this one at the start of the new year. Then I'll actually have a comment of substance and not this time waster that I've just left. You're not going to get those minutes back. :)

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    1. I have not read The Long Song, and honestly after this, I'm not massively into picking up another Levy book. Although I would never say never, and it's not like she's Samuel Richardson or something.

      I will be eagerly awaiting hearing what you have to say about this when you read it though! Because I can totally discuss THINGS more fully and then we can debate things and oh the fun we'll have!

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  3. Dude, it's really awful, but I hear 'Jamaica' and I almost totally tune out. I equate it with things being boring. I'm sure exciting stuff has happened there. I just haven't heard of any of it. (and pirates don't count)

    But good on you for reading a book that has to do with it.

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    1. Really?! I don't know man, I just really like the sound of Jamaica with the hammocks and the rum and the island way of life... But I've been RUINED by the holiday to the Cayman Islands my parents took me on when I was like 9.

      Is this comment your way of telling me you stopped reading at 'Jamaica'? HEARTBROKEN

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  4. I'm not sure it's ever a good thing for a book to be frustrating. And unlikeable characters are VERY difficult to overcome. This looks like it might be one to avoid. But you finished it! You persisted! Still, I'mma stick to Connie Willis for my WWII fiction, for now.

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    1. You can totally avoid it Kayleigh, I give you permission! Gilbert and Arthur are wonderful though. (WHY AM I EVEN DEFENDING IT?!)

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  5. I've seen this book in the bookstore for years, and there's just something about the cover that makes me dislike the book before even reading. Yes, I judge books by their covers. But now I know my judginess was right all along :) And awards, schmards!

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    1. Oh maaaan, I SO sometimes judge books by their covers. It's probably the main reason why the books that have been unread for so long have stayed unread. I don't mind this one though, to be fair!

      Awards, schmards: accurate.

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