Saturday, May 14, 2005

Small Island by Andrea Levy

The short version: an enjoyable read but rumor has it Fruit of the Lemon is better.

The longer version: I have what I’m beginning to suspect is a personal prejudice against novels told in alternating first person voices. My mother, for example, has no complaint against the form, yet I almost always, when confronted with a novel such as this one, wish the author had just made up her mind already and committed to one point of view. Part of the difficulty is that if a reader attaches more to one voice than another, it is a disappointment to switch, and in this novel I was most attached to the point of view—Hortense’s—that got the least play. I suspect though my main prejudice is that alternating points of view seems to me easier than maintaining one for an entire novel. There are several flaws to my own thinking—one, creating a series of strong voices is quite difficult (my complaint is that rarely are all of the voices strong) and two, even if it is easier that doesn’t automatically make it bad.

And I can see why Levy made the choice. A single first person narrator would have narrowed the scope of the novel considerably and eliminated a major coincidence that is revealed to the reader but not to the characters. Actually one of the most interesting elements of the novel is that Levy creates this major coincidence, never reveals it to the characters in the novel, and never comments on it for the reader (she can’t—none of the first person speakers ever know of it). If the novel had been in third person omniscient or limited this coincidence probably could not have gone unaddressed by the narrator—that would have felt contrived. So Levy, to pull this off has to alternate voices.

Levy also chooses to parallel two sets of characters—one Jamaican woman with a white, British woman and one Jamaican man with a white British man. There are very clear links between each—the two women share the major coincidence and the two men both serve in the RAF during World War II. Again the reader is left to make all connections and to interpret the racial, class, and personality differences that create the thematic concerns of the novel. So Levy makes quite a bit of the form—and yet I was still disappointed every time she switched to a character who was less compelling for me.

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