Small Island: A Novel

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New Books Noted in the New Yorker

Just finished up the recent New Yorker double issue and a couple of items caught my eye. First, I noticed in the capsule book reviews that there is a new book by Andrea Levy out. I had no idea, and it’s a shame because a new book by Levy should be big news. Her novel Small Island was one of the best books of the last five years (I read it in 2005.) This new book is called Fruit of the Lemon and it looks once again at Jamaican immigrants in England. While Small Island focused on the World War II era, however, in Fruit of the Lemon the action occurs in the 1970s, though racial tensions between the former colonizers and formerly colonized remain a major theme. This one is going on my list.Secondly, the New Yorker’s master essayist Louis Menand digs into a book I mentioned here a few months back, The Yale Book of Quotations. The more I hear about this book the more I want it. It sounds like one of those essential reference books that is both useful and endlessly entertaining. Here’s a tidbit from Menand’s review:It is extremely interesting to know, for instance, that the phrase “Shit happens” was introduced to print by one Connie Eble, in a publication identified as “UNC-CH Slang” (presumably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), in 1983. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” a closely related reflection, dates from 1982, the year it appeared in the Washington Post. “Been there, done that” entered the public discourse in 1983, via the Union Recorder, a publication out of the University of Sydney. “Get a life”: the Washington Post, 1983. (What is it about the nineteen-eighties, anyway?) “Size doesn’t matter,” a phrase, or at least a hope, that would seem to have been around since the Pleistocene, did not see print until 1989, rather late in the history of the species, when it appeared in the Boston Globe.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.

What’s next for Mrs. Millions?

Mrs. Millions has decided that if I’m going to do all this blogging she should get something out of it, too. She reads a lot, and it seems that I’m always digging through our bookshelves looking for another book for her to read. Well, I’m running out of ideas, so she’s decided to bypass me and go straight to you guys. She has thoughtfully provided her recent reading preferences to help you select something to her liking. You’ll notice here, as well, the attention Mrs. Millions pays to the look and feel of the books she reads, so you may want to factor that in.Like Max, I look forward to vacation because it demands that vast amounts of time be spent reading. Unlike Max, I do not have a reading queue but instead rely upon recommendations (always Max’s) for what to read next, or I search for an appealing title and cover from the Millions library, letting chance encounters determine my next choice. But now, Max is kindly letting me use the blog to place a request for suggestions… I call it “What’s next for Mrs. Millions?”My most recent read is Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am presently halfway through and am enjoying because it is fiction that weaves itself through history without being too tightly bound to it. Levy’s book also has an incredibly intentional feel to it and it is filled with vivid detail. The book is printed on paper that is like newsprint with rough edges – the tactility of a book impresses me as much as the content. Prior to this was Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This was not among my favorites, primarily because the story was too neat with not enough depth, and it’s a hardcover with bookjacket (which I immediately removed, as I often do). But it had a tough act to follow: The World According to Garp by John Irving is messy and endearing, pressing all the wrong and right buttons. Ours is an older copy, used before we acquired it which seemed in step with the novel – I even kept this one’s jacket on. And before that was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite among this group.With that brief history in mind, please send Max your suggestions sothat I will be kept from interrupting his reading time. ; ]So got any ideas? Help me out here folks. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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