Although all four characters take turns telling their stories, the narrative momentum of Small Island is slight; the present action occurs over a few days in 1948, but a great deal of the novel takes place in a time zone Levy simply labels ‘Before’ … Levy's greatest achievement in Small Island is to convey how English racism was all the more heartbreaking for its colonial victims because it involved the crushing of their ideals. Gilbert is astonished to discover that although he can reel off the names of England's canals and list the major industries of each English town, most English people can't even find Jamaica on a map … Small Island is too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope.
Levy tells a good story, and she tells it well -- using narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew. Levy's novel is no mere flight of fantasy, for it is rooted in the past and mired in the complicated stuff of empire. At the same time the memorable characters are radically unhinged from any sense of national fixity as their lives become intermeshed in strangely unexpected yet predictable ways … Island's temporal dynamics and the artfully choreographed connections among the various first-person voices propel the reader forward through differing perspectives and revelations.
Can Levy's fourth novel be this good? It can. It is. Narrated by the quirky voices of four idiosyncratic characters — Queenie and her husband, Bernard, white and English; Hortense and her husband, Gilbert, black and Jamaican — the novel spans three continents and multiple conflicts both political and personal … Levy's vast, gripping canvas troubles and moves and horrifies and informs. To the surprise and delight of her readers, her story also makes us laugh. What she gives us is nothing less than messy, terrifying, wonderful life itself. Rarely have almost 450 pages spun by so fast.