Small Island

Small Island

Small Island Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Andrea Levy's Small Island. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Andrea Levy

Born in England to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy grew up on a council estate (public housing project) in London. As a young woman she worked in various fields, from the BBC’s costume department to the graphic design company she founded with her husband, Bill Mayblin. It was only in her thirties that she began to take writing workshops and to write novels. At the time, little had been written about the lives of black Britons, so Levy’s work has helped shape the genre and document these experiences for the first time. She published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, in 1994. Her 2004 novel, Small Island, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year, and the Commonwealth Writers Price. Over the course of her literary career, Levy has written five novels and several short stories. She currently resides in London.
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Historical Context of Small Island

In 1948, the Empire Windrush brought 1,027 immigrants—including Levy’s father—to London from various Caribbean nations. As a result of the recent war (World War I), Britain’s population had decreased, and there were serious labor shortages. In response, the government extended citizenship to all its colonial subjects and invited them to immigrate to Britain, promising good jobs and a better life. However, once they arrived, the hopeful immigrants faced a largely hostile British populace and discrimination in almost every aspect of life, from jobs and housing to church memberships and entry into pubs. Despite these major obstacles, Afro-Caribbean immigration increased steadily until restrictions went into effect in 1962. Today, people of Caribbean descent form a large part of Britain’s multicultural society.

Other Books Related to Small Island

There are many noteworthy novels chronicling the Afro-Caribbean experience in Britain. Author Caryl Phillips, who was born in St. Kitts but grew up in England, delves into the African diaspora and the British immigrant experience in many of his books. In particular, his novel Crossing the River is set partly during World War II and details a romance between an African American soldier and a white British woman. Set in 1970s working-class London, Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth explores the British immigrant experience from the point of view of two families, one Jamaican and one Bengali. Like Small Island, Levy’s first (and semi-autobiographical) novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, also follows a Jamaican family as they adjust to life in London.
Key Facts about Small Island
  • Full Title: Small Island
  • When Written: ca. 2004
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 2004
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Setting: London, England; Kingstown, Jamaica
  • Climax: The revelation that Queenie is pregnant with an illegitimate biracial baby, and Hortense and Gilbert’s subsequent decision to adopt that baby.
  • Antagonist: Racism, as personified by Bernard Bligh
  • Point of View: First-person limited

Extra Credit for Small Island

Real-life Resemblance. Although Small Island isn’t autobiographical, it does have some similarities to Levy’s life; her father immigrated from Jamaica to London in 1948, followed shortly by her mother. Levy’s semi-autobiographical novel is called Every Light in the House Burnin’.

High Profile. Five years after its initial publication, Small Island was adapted into a two-part television series by the BBC.