Book Reviews · Historical Fiction · POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge 2021 Update: Week Thirty-Six

Good morning, everyone! I hope that you are having a wonderful week so far, and that you are continuing to stay healthy.

The temperature is finally beginning to cool down a bit, and it’s starting to actually feel like fall is on its way. I know I’ve said this in previous posts, but I am super excited for the upcoming season! I’m really looking forward to cooler weather, falling leaves, and especially an end to at least some of my seasonal allergies. It’ll be so nice to be able to walk outside without sneezing!

For this week’s POPSUGAR Reading Challenge update, I decided to read Small Island, by Andrea Levy.

A book that has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction…

The story of Small Island is told from the perspective of four different characters living in postwar London, in 1948.

As the book begins, Hortense Joseph arrives in London to join her husband, Gilbert, who had immigrated to England from Jamaica five months before.

Gilbert had been an airman in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and decided to return to England after the war, feeling that he would have better opportunities for advancement in the Mother Country. Upon his arrival in London, however, he soon discovers that he is considered a second-class citizen rather than a war hero because of the color of his skin and his status as an immigrant.

Disappointed in his work prospects, Gilbert manages to rent a room for himself and his new wife in the home of a white Englishwoman named Queenie, who has taken in lodgers while her husband is away. She had befriended Gilbert during the war, and offers to help Hortense settle into life in her new country. But Queenie soon finds herself shocked by the unexpected return of her husband, Bernard, an RAF airman who she has not heard from since the war ended three years earlier.

While the main storyline does take place in 1948, the majority of the book actually focuses on events that happened in the lives of each main character prior to 1948. These flashbacks show how the characters’ lives were shaped by their experiences both before and during the war, and ultimately how they ended up coming together at 21 Nevern Street.

I really enjoyed reading Small Island, and thought that it was an incredibly well-written book. Andrea Levy not only did a great job of presenting the reader with a realistic view of postwar England, but also of showing the effects of racism on the black soldiers and airmen who served in WWII, and on the men and women who immigrated to England after the war.

I was also really impressed with how well each character was developed throughout the book. All four of the main characters (Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert, and Bernard) have fascinating lives, and I found that I wanted to just keep on reading so that I could learn more about them.

Because the novel does reflect the reality and attitudes of the time period in which it is set, I think it is important to mention that Small Island does include some very difficult-to-read content. In addition to depictions of war (both on the battlefield and the home front), the novel includes a tremendous amount of derogatory language aimed at the novel’s black characters, and shows the negative attitudes and hostility that black service members were subjected to during World War II (as well as after the war).

I also think it is important to mention that this book was definitely written with an adult audience in mind. In addition to the language I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Small Island also includes a number of chapters that include sexual content and/or references to sex, as well as a rather descriptive scene involving the birth of a child. The novel also includes references to both suicide and abortion.

Small Island was adapted into a two-episode mini-series by the BBC in 2009, which starred Naomie Harris (as Hortense), Ruth Wilson (as Queenie), David Oyelowo (as Gilbert), and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Bernard).

I originally saw the mini-series prior to reading the novel (shortly after it was released on DVD), but decided to watch it again after finishing the book.

While the mini-series does do a pretty good job of following the original story, there are a number of differences between it and the novel. Many of these differences involve scenes that have been omitted, most of which are related to the characters’ individual experiences during the war. This is perhaps most noticeable with Gilbert, whose time in the RAF is only briefly shown, and with Bernard, whose individual story is almost entirely absent.

Even though I enjoyed watching the mini-series again, and was very impressed with the acting, I have to say that I did enjoy the novel more, as it feels more complete.

While you can find copies of the mini-series on DVD, it is also currently available for streaming on BritBox. It is worth noting that the mini-series is rated TV-MA, because of sex, nudity, and profanity.

If you are interested in historical fiction, particularly books which take place around the time of WWII, then I would recommend taking the time to read Small Island. It’s a very well-written book, and one that I think you will find eye-opening. I also recommend giving the mini-series adaptation a try, especially if you already have a subscription to BritBox.

Next week’s POPSUGAR Reading Challenge update will be posted on Saturday, September 11th. In the meantime, I hope you will visit The Unapologetic Bookworm next week for my review of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Baptism of Fire (on September 6th) and my review of Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House (on September 8th).

Have a great weekend!

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