Small Island is a novel which primarily deals with prejudices-not just the from the perspective of people who are on the receiving end of them-but also from those who hold them. The novel is told via a variety of different perspectives, although the two main (and best written) narratives are those of Gilbert and Hortense, immigrants from Jamaica, whose sham marriage forms the core content of the novel. Their narratives explores not just the difficulties which each of them had to circumnavigate in a post-war Britain which was rife with racism, but also the challenges of two strangers building a marriage in challenging circumstances and the many disappointments they face in acclimatising in a hostile society. In many ways Gilbert gets a head start as he experienced the pains of living in England during his time in the RAF, however for Hortense, whose haughty sense of entitlement and reverence for all things Englishness is soon destroyed by the reality of life as a black immigrant in post-war Britain, where people routinely refuse to acknowledge her perfect diction or abilities.
The two other central narratives in the novel-of Queenie, whose takes Gilbert and other Jamaicans in as lodgers and of her asinine, highly-strung and racist husband Bernand are slightly less strong, especially Bernard who, acts as a somewhat two-dimensional exploration of (in contrast to Queenie) why certain people were brought up to be prejudiced. This, alongside the intentional soap opera-esque nature of the plot means it often becomes far more contributed than it should be. Levy’s pen flows best when she is exploring the inner lives of the various characters who populate the novel, rather than when she is trying to make the plot fit into easy soap opera tropes.