Small Island by Andrea Levy
After my meager reading of April, I have been positively indulging in book gluttony in May.
I found Small Island at the library, and I must admit that the fact of its being an Orange Prize winner drew my notice. From the back of the book: "Small Island explores a point in England's past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit."
After reading the story, I could not agree more. I don't know if racial tension in the UK was ever quite as brutal or vicious as in the US, but it was bad enough if you happened to be on the receiving end of it. There are four main characters--a Jamaican man and woman, and a British man and woman, and the story is told in first person, alternately between the characters. That results in each character becoming a sympathetic character for the reader. We cannot despise Bernard as thoroughly as Queenie does, or even see his prejudice in the same light that Gilbert does, because we have walked in his shoes,and felt the impression of his war experiences (mostly in India). We sympathize with four people in an impossible situation. So many books that touch on this subject would play up the the ugliness and stress without a drop of relief, but Andrea Levy does more--much more. She shows the hope, the human spirit, that refuses to be crushed, and rather than allow disillusionment to plunge her characters into despair, it stiffens their spines to meet the world face-to-face.
One of the most touching and telling scenes in the book comes near the end, when Hortense, the dignified young Jamaican who studied to be a teacher, and taught in a Jamaican school, applies to teach in England. Her bubble of dreams is burst, suddenly and completely, and her husband (whom she married only for convenience' sake, to get to the "Mother Country") with far more experience of England, is there to tease, console, cajole, and guide her to keep her chin up and make another way.