Revisioning cultural memory: alternative narratives of 1940s Britain in Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


Recently, fiction writers have begun to address and revision under-represented aspects of wartime and post-war experience to focus on the lives of the unacknowledged ‘many’, such as women, the working classes, and Black migrants. This paper focuses on one of these ‘alternative narratives’, Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel, Small Island (2004), which provides four interconnected accounts of the second world war and its aftermath from the perspective of its protagonists, Hortense, a Black Jamaican woman, Gilbert, a Black Jamaican Man, Queenie, a white British working class woman, and Bernard, a white British man. Utilising the resources of trauma theory and narratology, I examine Levy’s use of a variety of literary techniques including analepsis, prolepsis, multiple narration, and temporal dislocation in order to enact a decentring of orthodox history and narrative in the face of traumatic events. In this way, the text registers the impact of war and its aftermath on characters’ psyches and, paradoxically perhaps, enables the reader to come to an empathic understanding, through such narrative manoeuvres, of how public events and personal stories are intertwined. Moreover, in foregrounding the processes of storytelling, the novel testifies to the importance of historical reconstruction and cultural memory. It arguably functions as a self-reflexive act of remembering and forgetting, exploring the gaps, silences, and contradictions, the ‘memory frictions’, in accounts of British wartime experience. As a result, Small Island evinces a desire both to record untold or overlooked aspects of collective British history, and to intervene in History by giving symbolic and narrative shape to previously marginalised Black and working class experiences.
Period6 May 2018
Event titleMemory Frictions: Conflict - Negotiation - Politics
Event typeConference
LocationZaragoza, SpainShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Cultural memory
  • Culture
  • Memory
  • Alternative narratives
  • 1940s
  • Britain