If Jane Austen thought nobody could actually like Emma, I have no idea how Andrea Levy thought we could suffer Hortense. Not that they resemble – no one in their sane mind would ever relate them – I’m just thinking of characters’ likability.
I’ve never met a more insufferable, stuck-up, racist and naive character. What irritates me about Hortense is that her situation in life and her personal achievements have nothing to justify her thinking of herself that high. A bit of reflection and self-awareness would do wonders for her. And that is why I think Levy actually created a brilliant character. Moreover, the flashbacks and the chapters with different narrators in the end form a well-knitted patchwork.
Above all, what Levy really achieves here is to make us totally aware that everything is a matter of perspective – that there are no clear-cut distinction between oppressed and oppressor and that we all look up and look down at each other in different situations at different times in our lives. Being ‘small’ or ‘big’ is not a fixed category; it is just a matter of what it looks like to you from where you are at the moment.
A friend of mine commented that he he’s got tired of this sort of postcolonial writing and to a certain point I agree with him, but Levy’s book is really an ingenious piece of writing. The way she slowly reveals the personality of her characters and let us musing on their internal motivations is just on the money. Even Hortense, for all her arrogance, at the end does not look to me more than a completely lost creature with a highly developed defense mechanism of which she is not really aware of most of the time.
Levy, A. (2004) Small Island. London: Headline.