Small Island is a good, solid book in nearly every way, although for me it didn’t have that something extra that would take it up to 5 stars.
The frame story is set in London, 1948: a black Jamaican couple, Hortense and Gilbert, move to England and rent a room from a white woman, Queenie, whose husband Bernard mysteriously failed to return from WWII. Most of the book traces each of the four main characters’ backstories, up until the last hundred pages set in 1948.
Small Island is quite an interesting piece of historical fiction, examining the era when England started to change from mostly homogenous to multicultural, and all the friction that went with that. The harsh realities of immigrant life and the ugliness of racism take center stage, particularly the latter, as American racism (segregation and hostility) is contrasted with British racism (less institutionalized but no less hostile) and Jamaican racism (subtler, based on the shade of one’s skin, but pernicious nonetheless). The book is thoughtful in its treatment of these themes: everyone involved has virtues and flaws, and there’s a powerful bit at the end that shows how harmful racism can be to white people too.
The characters themselves are fairly well-developed and believable. This is one of the few books where I don’t think the author made a terrible mistake in having all four characters each narrate their own story in the first person. While you can tell all four voices come from the same author, there are enough differences in their vocabularies and styles that this comes off well, and each personality comes through in the narration. Levy also does an excellent job of showing those personalities rather than simply describing them: an example other authors could learn from. We don't have to be told that Hortense is prim, Queenie well-meaning but patronizing, or Bernard rigid. But while the characters are distinct (from one another and from other fictional characters; I appreciate the avoidance of the generically-inoffensive type), at times they felt a bit consciously constructed, their personalities not quite fitting together. Gilbert, for instance, says several times that he wants to study law, but he seems to have that desire merely so that obstacles can be thrown in his way; he doesn’t ever show actual interest in law, or enjoy reading, or display any other characteristics that would make sense of that ambition. But still, the characters are interesting people whose backstories I wanted to read, and their relationships are complex. Both marriages are made from convenience, and it was especially interesting to see how everyone dealt with that.
Levy also does an excellent job evoking the settings--the Blitz has been done a lot in literature, for example, but this depiction stands out. The dialogue is good, and the use of Jamaican patois lends color without being impenetrable. The writing is smooth and the ending appropriately bittersweet. So while this isn’t up to 5 stars with me, it certainly gets a solid 4.