The novel follows the lives of five characters –Hortense, Queenie, Michael Roberts, Gilbert and Bernard – and the story is told from each of their points of view at various points in the book. Set in 1948, Small Island follows the fates of Gilbert and Hortense, newly arrived Jamaican immigrants who were part of the wave of new arrivals who came to Britain after the Second World War. They struggle to settle into their new home of Earls Court, and find the English people and country very different to what they had been taught in Jamaica. Queenie and Bernard, on the other hand, are a British couple who also live in Earls Court. After Bernard leaves to fight in the war, Queenie takes in lodgers, including Hortense and Gilbert, and Michael Roberts, a Jamaican man in the Air Force. Queenie and Michael Roberts develop a relationship, which results in the book’s eventual climax.
Levy explores the themes of immigration, identity and prejudice within Small Island. However, although racism and discrimination against the black characters are prevalent throughout the novel after they arrive in Earls Court, Levy herself has stated in an interview; “none of my books are just about race. They’re about people and history.” Therefore, we can see Small Island is more a novel about the effects of British colonialism and 20th century history, played out in narrative situated in the London borough of Earls Court.
Discrimination is a theme central to the novel. Hortense arrives in Earls Court from Jamaica to join her husband Gilbert, hoping for a better life in the Britain she’s always revered. However, the prejudice she receives because of her accent and skin colour prevents her from getting a job as a teacher, as she is trained to do. The disappointment that Hortense feels on arriving in a cold winter, in a Post-War Britain, is profound. She had been taught to revere the English language, culture and manners, and is bitterly disenchanted when she finds that life in Britain isn’t as she expected. This is compounded by the bleak, run-down streets of Earls Court, and the dreary, dirty house that she moves into with her husband. Levy uses Hortense’s narrative to depict the lasting effects of British colonialism, and the high expectations versus the real-life experiences of Jamaican immigrants arriving in Britain after the war.
Meanwhile, Gilbert faces racial slurs in his jobs as a Post Office driver. However, although Levy presents the problems and discrimination that Jamaican immigrants faced after their arrival in Britain, she also shows that hope for progress was not in vain: “Why you wan’ the whole world when ya have a likkle piece a hope here? Stay. Stay and fight, man. Fight till you look ‘pon what you wan’ see.” This could be because Levy wrote the novel with the benefit of hindsight, and knowing that life would ultimately improve for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Earls Court is central to the narrative of Small Island, as it embodies the broken and bleak Post-War Britain. This contrasts with the expectations that Jamaican immigrants had when arriving in the country after the Second World War, given to them by the British colonialist narrative. Small Island explores this narrative, and the experiences of immigrants arriving in Britain, through the tale of Hortense and Gilbert, and Queenie, Michael Roberts and Bernard.