Simple is Best in Postcolonial

Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Against all odds, I found my literary heaven in Jamaica, England, and India on an all-American road trip. I normally adhere to the principle that for sanity’s sake, it’s best not to read for pleasure the literature you study. But I violated my own rule this summer when—as a postcolonial history and literature concentrator—I read, and enjoyed, some popular postcolonial lit.

I don’t normally like reading postcolonial novels tailored for popular consumption—probably because I feel like I’ve overdosed. To me, Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” (which I was assigned to read for a history seminar) might have been better titled “Pulling Teeth.” The same goes for “On Beauty.” A postcolonial history and literature concentrator should be singing the praises of novels that grapple with the themes of multiculturalism and immigration, but I just can’t.

Thankfully, Smith’s novels don’t need me: they are wildly successful, and in many ways they deserve the acclaim they received. Smith is a gifted writer whose works are positively epic: plentiful characters, rich plot twists, and clever details that enthrall and intimidate the reader. Furthermore, she taps a store of compelling themes: race, immigration, colonialism, and ethnic and cultural ambiguity. But she does so with such a heavy hand that it’s impossible not to feel as if you’re being bludgeoned by a postcolonial hammer.

“Like the Englishmen who named streets in Kerala after their wives, like the Americans who shoved their flag in the moon. It was a warning from Allah,” Smith writes in “White Teeth.” The imperial imagery is nice, but it’d also be nice to discover the parallels myself instead of having them shoved down my proverbial throat.

This leads me to my confession: while admittedly a bit of a hater, I am a lover of Andrea Levy’s “Small Island.” I picked up the novel this summer because my mother was reading it for her book club. It’s hard not to compare Levy to Smith: both are black, female British authors of Jamaican heritage. More importantly, both produce works that focus on counteracting the dominant voices in British and American history by illuminating an alternative discourse. But in “Small Island,” Levy succeeds where Smith falls short.

Levy dexterously handles the profound and complicated themes of a novel whose central conflict is the migration of Jamaican soldiers to England to fight in World War II. Unlike Smith’s sprawling epics, “Small Island” is a multigenerational work that draws its narrative lines neatly along principle characters who take turns recounting their stories.

Frank and unassuming, Levy’s work introduces casual readers to more sophisticated issues of racial and cultural identity without overwhelming them. Levy does not pit Jamaica and England against each other in an artificial dichotomy that would please the lazy reader looking for an easy postcolonial conflict. Instead, she moves through the stories of both Hortense and Queenie in parallel chronology, highlighting their dysfunctional relationships with their military husbands and frustrations with their respective “small islands.”

And while Levy communicates her imperial frustrations clearly, she does not do so by painting a superficial portrait of either side. Although Jamaican soldiers emerge as the heroic but disenfranchised patriots, Levy also highlights the ambiguous and terrifying experiences of white British veterans of the World Wars. While the geography of the novel is sweeping (the story takes place in Jamaica, the U.S., England, and India), its characters and storylines are pleasantly connected and often hilarious.

And so I sat tucked in the back of a station wagon as my family and I drove from Illinois to Maine on our annual cross-country trek and found myself laughing out loud in pure delight at Levy’s work while my thesis reading sat beside me, neglected. And in the hours I spent in the car, I rediscovered the sort of unpretentious writing that can distill even the heaviest themes into what is simply a good book.

—Emma M. Lind