Small Island
by Andrea Levy

It’s 1948 and England is slowly recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. At number 21 Nevern Street in London, however, another war is taking place.

At 21 Nevern Street live Queenie Bligh and Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense. Gilbert Joseph is a Jamaican who joined the RAF to fight for England. Queenie’s husband Bernard has yet to return from the war and is presumed to be dead. Queenie let rooms to soldiers during the conflict and now, her future uncertain and to make ends meet, still takes in lodgers – takes in Gilbert Joseph and Hortense. But not everyone approves of white Queenie letting rooms to black Gilbert and Hortense. Never mind that Gilbert fought to keep England free; never mind the promises they were made and the dreams they hold.

Anyone familiar with what’s been going on in the United Kingdom with Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for immigrants policy and the draconian measures taken against people who have been here most of their lives but don’t have the piece of paper to prove it (in many cases because the Home Office destroyed that piece of paper) will know why I’ve chosen Small Island this month. That is, besides the fact that it is a glorious and fantastic novel, beautifully written and unflinchingly honest. Besides the fact that it is a story of hope, love, bigotry, injustice and prejudice told with insight, feeling, humour, anger and depth. Besides those facts, I’ve chosen it bcause it is people like Gilbert and Hortense – the Windrush generation – that have been so badly treated by the United Kingdom seventy years after this novel takes place.

This is a must-read book. Especially now, when tolerance, generosity, empathy, decency and just plain logic seem to be in retreat. Especially if you’re in the present government.

Small Island