Small Island by Andrea Levy
When you find a good novel, it's like another person has entered the room and becomes a friend you look forward to spending time with. Like a real person, Small Island is full of contradictions. It is both intimate and objective. It is complicated in structure in terms of time line and point of view, but beautifully easy to read. Otherwise with my three-second goldfish memory I wouldn't have finished it. There are four main characters, all written from the first person, often from opposing sides, yet the book has a clear, unified voice.
The main storyline takes place during the Second World War, and tells the account of ordinary people in a disorientated world. We hear the voices of an English woman in London, her soldier husband lost in India, and an immigrant couple from Jamaica, and their experience of starting a new life in London. There's racism, misogyny, compassion, love, and humour. A very human book.
Andrea Levy gets inside the heads of these very different characters, and tells us how they feel and why, and you can't help but identify with them. By the end it feels like these people are out there living their lives somewhere, and in a non-literal sense, they are. The feeling I was left with, like an after taste, was bitter sweet. The message is very clear; that prejudice is a corrosive but very human vice. We should all be nicer to each other, because we are all human.
Levy also deals beautifully with the power of nature and the relationship between people and the landscape of Jamaica, here after a hurricane:
"No living person should ever see the underside of a tree. The roots – that gnarled, tangled mess of prongs that plummet unruly into the earth in search of sustenance. As I fled from the schoolhouse after the hurricane had passed, the world was upside-down. The fields to my left, to my right, undulated with this black and wretched chaos. Trees ripped from land that had held them fast for years. Branches that should have been seeking light snuffled now in the dirt – their fruit splattered about like gunshot... I stumbled through this estranged landscape alarmed as a blind man who can now see."
Oh yes, there are some pretty unrestrained sex scenes in there too. And one very 'restrained' one between the newly wed couple, which is hilarious, which I will leave you with:
"Turning away, I took off my hat to place it delicately in the cupboard. I could have been no more than five seconds but when I turned back Gilbert stood before me naked as Adam. And between his legs a thing grew. I could do nothing but stare.
'Come to me, Hortense,' this man said, holding out his arms for me.
I was going nowhere near that thing. 'What is that?'
'What is this?' he said, modelling it for me like it was something to be proud of. 'This is my manhood.'
'Keep that thing away from me!' I said."