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Small Island

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English Literature

Small Island (2004) is a novel by Andrea Levy, a Black British author of Jamaican descent. The novel is about two Windrush immigrants, Gilbert and Hortense, living and surviving in Britain. In Britain, they are faced with people who can barely understand and accept them such as the characters Queenie, Bernard and – it seems – the whole of England. The novel handles sensitive issues of racial discrimination and violence while at the same time finding levity and hope in small moments of connection and luck.

Andrea Levy's Small Island: synopsis

Small Island follows the lives and experiences of four protagonists: Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, and Queenie and Bernard Bligh. Narration alternates between the four, with chapters either taking place in the ‘Before’ time period or in the present moment, in 1948. Intermingled with long chunks of characters' backstories are interjecting chapters that take place in the present, in 1948.

Queenie's Prologue

The novel opens with a prologue by Queenie going to the British Empire Exhibition as a child, where she meets a black man with whom she shakes hands. Her father is not overjoyed about this but says it was fine to shake his hand because he was probably a 'civilised' prince.

Hortense's narrative

The first chapter opens with Hortense Joseph arriving in England in 1948 and meeting Queenie at the door to her house. Hortense’s husband, Gilbert Joseph, has rented a shabby room with her and this is where the two will be living: ‘Just this? You bring me all the way just for this?’.

Hortense is the first to share the story of her life in Jamaica. Hortense is the daughter of an important upper-class man and an uneducated servant, Alberta. It was arranged that Hortense would be raised by her father’s cousins, the uptight Mr Philip and Miss Ma, and that Alberta’s mother, Miss Jewel, would work as a servant for the family and raise Hortense. Hortense grows up with their son, Michael Roberts, on whom she has a crush.

At fifteen, she finishes her education and begins to teach at a school run by American missionaries, Mr and Mrs Ryder. One day a hurricane strikes and Hortense takes shelter in the school with Mrs Ryder. Michael finds them and comforts Mrs Ryder and not Hortense. Meanwhile, Mr Ryder crashed his car in the hurricane and died. Hortense announces that Michael and Mrs Ryder were in the school alone, leading Michael to abruptly leave for England to join the RAF. Later, Hortense finds out Michael is missing and presumed dead.

Hortense begins to teach at another school and boards with the headmaster. She meets Gilbert, who has just returned from fighting in the RAF. Gilbert plans to go live in England with his girlfriend and Hortense’s friend, Celia Langley. But Hortense offers to pay for his trip if he will take her with him instead. The two quickly marry and Gilbert is off to England. The novel then switches to the present, where Hortense makes Gilbert sleep in a chair and she can't fall asleep because of the mice in the room.

Gilbert's narrative

We then hear Gilbert’s story. Gilbert joined the RAF and was sent to Virginia in the United States, where he is subjected to racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws. Back in England, he’s sent to Yorkshire to work an unglamorous job as a driver and coal shifter, and he continues to face discrimination.

One day, he guides a lost mentally ill man home and ends up at the doorstep of Queenie Bligh, the man's daughter-in-law. Queenie is thankful for his help in bringing Arthur back and the two become friends. Gilbert and Queenie go to see a film together and a fight breaks out when Gilbert refuses to sit at the back at the request of the racist American soldiers in attendance. In the scuffle, a policeman accidentally shoots and kills Arthur Bligh.

Gilbert returns to Jamaica in 1947 and finds it too small for him and wants to return to England for better opportunities. His cousin Elwood, on the other hand, is a proud Jamaican. Elwood gets Gilbert to invest in bees but the plan goes wrong and Gilbert is left worse off.

The present

The narrative perspective switches to Hortense in the present. Hortense bundles herself against the cold and contends with Queenie's ignorant, but well-intentioned, conversation.

Queenie's narrative

Then we get Queenie's story. She had a drab upbringing as a butcher's daughter living on a farm in the North of England. She moves to London and stays with her Aunt Dorothy. She meets Bernard Bligh at the sweetshop and begins an underwhelming courtship with him, returning to the shop one night to find Aunt Dorothy has died from a stroke. Terrified at the prospect of returning to the farm, she agrees to marry Bernard.

Then Britain announces war with Germany and London is bombed. Queenie gets a job at a rest centre and Bernard is deployed overseas with the RAF. Queenie lets RAF soldiers stay at her house, one of whom is the charming Michael Roberts; they sleep together before he leaves.

The present

Back in 1948, we're with Gilbert as he searches for a job but is turned down because of the colour of his skin. He finds a job as a postman driver and continues to face racism. After a tough day, Gilbert is enraged there's no good food to eat and storms out. In the street, he finds a kind old lady who asks if he's okay and gives him a sweet.

In the present, Queenie takes Hortense shopping and when they return home, Bernard is there waiting.

Bernard's narrative

The final narrator, Bernard, begins his story. Bernard was stationed in India, and he regards the place and people with hostility and prejudice. Bernard is clumsy, cowardly and older than the other soldiers, but manages to make one friend, Maxi. Many soldiers, including Maxi, are tired of the conditions and want to return home. Maxi calls a meeting to plan a strike, but Bernard is too cowardly to join. The barracks catch fire and most men inside, including Maxi, die. Bernard is sent to jail for abandoning the guard to put the fire out. After being released, he sleeps with a young prostitute, and, afraid he's contracted syphilis, he lives in Brighton for two years, too ashamed to face Queenie.

The final chapters

The final chapters take place in the present, in 1948. Bernard is angry with Queenie for renting the room out to Black lodgers and suggests kicking them out and moving to the suburbs. On another day, Hortense goes to apply for a teaching job but is rejected because her Jamaican qualifications are worthless in England, and because of the colour of her skin.

Queenie unexpectedly goes into labour one day, and Hortense helps her give birth to an illegitimate, mixed-race baby. Thinking that the father is Gilbert, Bernard punches him. Queenie explains everything to Bernard: Michael hadn't died in the war, he had returned and they spent three days together before he set off for Toronto. She originally didn't want the baby but grew to accept it.

Another tenant, Winston, has bought a house and offers Gilbert and Hortense help him fix it up and move in. Hortense lets him sleep in her bed for the first time. Time passes and Bernard warms to the baby, but Queenie knows that he could not be a good father to a Black child and begs Hortense and Gilbert to take and raise him as their own. They accept, and Hortense finds cash and a picture of Queenie sewn into the baby's jumper.

Small Island: characters

Let's take a look at the novel's main characters.

Hortense

Hortense is a proud Jamaican woman with an overinflated sense of superiority but learns to be less prejudiced, while still maintaining her self-worth. Her aspiration to become a teacher in England is crushed by racism. She has high expectations of England and is prejudiced against people whom she views as low-class. Her inflated sense of self comes from her father being an important man, and the light 'honey' colour of her skin.

'With such a countenance there was a chance of a golden life for I. What, after all, could Alberta give? Bare black feet skipping over stones. If I was given to my father’s cousins for upbringing, I could learn to read and write and perform all my times tables. And more. I could become a lady worthy of my father, wherever he might be.'

- Chapter 3.

However, over the course of the novel, after being mistreated due to the colour of her skin, her character develops and she is kinder to people whom she perceives as below her. When a shabby looking Jamaican makes small talk with her, she replies with uncharacteristic kindness:

''Cold day today, Miss,' he said to her.

...

She glanced at him, from his scarf-wrapped head, past his baggy stained trousers, to his dirty shoes. She looked swiftly around her and, in the wink of an eye, she came back to this man. And she answered him, 'i have found that this is a very cold country.’

The man tipped his hat again. 'Ah, very cold, Miss,’ he muttered, as he moved on, 'very cold'.'

- Chapter Fifty-one.

Gilbert

Gilbert served in the RAF during WWII and becomes a postal driver. Like Hortense, Gilbert finds Jamaica stifling and wants to move to England to pursue his ambitions. And, like Hortense, his ambitions are crushed because of the colour of his skin. Gilbert has a strong character and fights back when he is abused by others, and he has a strong sense of dignity. He confronts Bernard at the end of the novel:

'Listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war – a bloody war – for the better world we wan' see. And on the same side – you and me. We both look on other men to see enemy. You and me, fighting for empire, fighting for peace. But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’'tell me I am worthless and you are not. Am I to be the servant and you are the master for all time? No. Stop this, man. Stop it now. We can work together, Mr Bligh. You no see? We must. Or else you just gonna fight me till the end?'

- Chapter Fifty-nine.

Queenie

Queenie is a well-meaning white woman, who nonetheless harbours ignorant and racist views. For example, when she sees a photo of Michael Roberts' father, she says he looks like a 'chimpanzee in clothes' and she fetishises black men – from the African man she meets as a child in the Empire Exhibition to Michael Roberts, with whom she has an affair. But Queenie has a strong sense of injustice, which is what leads her to become a vegetarian as a child, and why she goes on to empathise with the struggle of Caribbean immigrants.

Queenie is stifled by her marriage to Bernard, who wants her confined to the domestic space, and stifles her sexuality. With Michael, she has a sort of sexual awakening, which leads her to question her identity.

'It wasn’t me. Mrs Queenie Bligh, she wasn’t even there... Mrs Queenie Bligh would never do such a thing. That one, Mrs Bligh, usually worked out what she could make for dinner during sexual relations with her husband. But this woman, if it hadn’t been for the blackout, could have lit up London.'

- Chapter Twenty-nine.

Bernard

Before the war, Bernard worked as a bank clerk; during the war, he served in the RAF. Bernard is a hardly-redeemable character, his overt ignorance and racism make him a clear antagonist. He is also a cowardly man who wants to constrict his wife, Queenie. In the Bernard chapters, we glimpse at the complexity in his character. For example, he wishes it was him that was killed in the war, and not his friend Maxi. However, Bernard fails to grow over the course of the novel, remaining ignorant even in the final moments of the novel:

'I'm sorry... but I just can't understand a single word that you're saying.'

- Chapter Fifty-nine.

Small Island: analysis and summary

Let's look at the novel's themes and go into some analysis that summarises key passages from the novel.

Literary devices

Let's take a look at the key literary devices used in Small Island.

Narrative devices

The novel is narrated from multiple narrative voices, giving the central characters the chance to speak for themselves and tell their own stories in an intimate way. Furthermore, each character's narration has a different narrative style that is distinctively their own.

Bernard's narration is stilted and self-conscious, being composed of short sentences detailing facts, with little embellishment. This narrative style of the Bernard chapters reveals his cowardly and self-conscious personality:

I'd not wanted a war. None of us had. And I never wanted to be out in India. But (I admit) it put a rod in the back and spring in the step of this middle-aged bank clerk who'd thought his life was set. Even started whistling (nothing fancy) now I was part of a team: 298 Repair and Salvage Unit. RAF trained and tested - mechanic (engines) - and proud to be an erk.

- Chapter Thirty-six.

Chronology

Small Island is told in a non-linear order. In fact, chapters set in the past take up the majority of the text, highlighting the importance of understanding the past in order to understand the present, and why people come to be and act a certain way.

Comic devices

Small Island has many moments of levity, which balance out the novel's serious and tragic episodes, such as the death of Arthur Bligh and the struggles faced by Hortense and Gilbert because of the colour of their skin. Levy uses comic devices such as irony and comic misunderstandings to mock folly and prejudice and to highlight the inconsistencies in prejudiced worldviews, such as racism and classism.

For example, when the usherette tells Gilbert he has to sit at the back with the other black people in attendance, her ignorance and folly is exposed and ridiculed in an ironic misunderstanding:

'Then you'll have to go. It's up at the back or nowhere.'

'Madam, there is no Jim Crow in this country.'

'Who?'

'Segregation, madam, there is no segregation in this country.'

- Chapter Seventeen.

Another noteworthy two-way comic misunderstanding takes place between Queenie and Hortense. Hortense's haughtiness clashes with Queenie's well-meaning condescension.

'Cat got your tongue?' she said. What cat was she talking of? Don't tell me there was a cat that must also live with us in this room. 'My name's Mrs Bligh,' she carried on. But you can call me Queenie, if you like. Everyone here does. Would you like that?' The impression I received was that she was talking to me as if I was an imbecile. An educated woman such as I.'

- Chapter Twenty-Two.

The two characters' flaws clash, creating a comic, ironic tone that is only heightened by the dramatic irony of the two women being clueless that they both loved the same man, Michael Roberts.

In the novel, comedy is used to highlight the necessity to overcome ignorance and pride and the importance of making an effort to understand one another.

Themes

In its exploration of the experiences of Windrush immigrants, Small Island deals with themes of home, belonging and alienation.

Women and patriarchy

Crucially, it is Hortense that has the money to get her and Gilbert to England, showing she has the power in their relationship. In Gilbert and Hortense's marriage, Gilbert tries to exert control over his wife and domestic life, to make up for his lack of control over the racism he faces in England. When Hortense cooks him a bad meal, he lashes out at her and storms out.

'I can take no more of this!’ he yell, for everyone in the house to hear. And he charge from the room slamming the door so ferocious the armchair collapse sideways off its box.'

- Chapter Thirty-one.

During the Second World War, many women joined the labour force and enjoyed their new freedoms. Bernard doesn't want Queenie to get a job and, when he returns, he expects Queenie to continue to be an obedient wife.

Fighting discrimmination: pride, ambition and strength

Many Windrush immigrants came to the UK with ambitions, eager to take up the opportunities the 'Mother Country' offered but found their ambitions crushed. In the novel, the Jamaican characters Hortense, Gilbert, Michael and even Gilbert's cousin Elwood are motivated by their ambitions. It is partly Gilbert's ambition that makes Hortense respect him.

When Hortense is humiliated trying to apply for a teaching job, Gilbert suggests she tries to get some sewing work in the meantime. Gilbert also confesses that he has lofty aspirations and wants to study law.

'Sewing?' She shout this, all tears outraged away. 'But I am a teacher.'

'And a teacher you will be even when you are sewing.

'She sucked on her teeth in a most unladylike manner. So I told her, 'Hortense, your mummy never tell you, "Needs must when the devil drives"? Look at me, for too long I have been driving lorries but one day . . .' I hesitated.

'What?' she asked'

'One day I will study the law.' Man, those words sounded so foolish. Let out into the cold air of a London night that hopeless dream soared so far from reach I heard the angels laughing. It was my turn to look away. For I was a big-talk buffoon. Suddenly her hand, delicate and tender, gently place itself over mine. I dared not look to see if her touch was real. My doubt might melt it."

- Chapter Fifty-one.

For Hortense, dressing, acting and speaking properly are a way for her to have control over her identity and to shield her from the judgements of others. The novel ends with this line from Hortense:

But I paid it no mind as I pulled my back up and straightened my coat against the cold."

The novel creates a full picture of the life that Windrush immigrants led and refuses to paint them as victims with no say in their own fate. Hortense and Gilbert fight hardship with their inner strength and a strong sense of their own self-worth.

Relationships and connections

When it is so difficult to fulfil your ambitions, you need people by your side when you fail. The novel's plot revolves around a web of interwoven connections between characters, some of which they never realise within the novel, such as the connection of Hortense, Michael and Queenie. The characters are connected through unknown connections, fateful meetings, and parallel plot events – Hortense was given to her father's cousins to have a better upbringing, and Queenie's baby is given to Hortense and Gilbert for the same reason.

The novel is also about the importance of forging relationships and connections with those around you to make the hostility of society and the world more bearable.

Gilbert and Hortense's marriage takes off on a very comic foot. On their honeymoon, she is horrified at his penis and she makes him sleep in an armchair when they're together in England. However, the two become each other's rock amidst the many disappointments and tragic ironies that England unleashes on them. The two are able to bond over life's cruelties through laughter:

'Interesting cupboard,' I told her. 'You say it have broom and paper.’ And then it happen.

She smiled.

'How long you say you stay in this cupboard?' I asked. And, oh, boy, that smile take on a voice – she giggle.

'Enough time for me to know that I am not dead but I am merely in a cupboard.'

'Long time, then.'

She laughed and I swear the sky, louring above our heads, opened on a sharp beam of sunlight.

- Chapter Fifty-one.

The novel also highlights the importance of small connections between strangers, and how important these are to those who are alienated. Gilbert is very grateful for the old lady who gave him a sweet:

'How long did I stare at that sweet in my hand? Fool that I am, I took a handkerchief from my pocket to wrap it. I had no intention of eating that precious candy. For it was a salvation to me – not for the sugar but for the act of kindness. The human tenderness with which it was given to me. I had become hungry for the good in people. Beholden to any tender heart. All we boys were in this thankless place. When we find it, we keep it. A simple gesture, a friendly word, a touch, a sticky sweet rescued me as sure as if that Englishwoman had pulled me from drowning in the sea.'

- Chapter Thirty-two.

Small Island is a powerful novel that paints a full picture of what it was like for the Windrush Generation to settle in England in the postwar period.

Small Island - Key takeaways

  • Small Island is told from the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert who are Windrush immigrants from Jamaica, and Queenie and Bernard, who are English.
  • The basic plot of the novel is: Hortense and Gilbert struggle to adjust to life in England, reminiscing about their lives before settling there in 1948. Queenie also reminisces on her past life and on the affair she had with a black RAF soldier, Michael Roberts. Queenie and Hortense don't know that Michael is Hortense's step-brother. One day, Queenie's husband Bernard arrives home from the war and soon after, Queenie gives birth to an illegitimate son. Queenie begs for Hortense and Gilbert to take him as they would be better parents and they do.
  • The key literary devices used in the novel are multiple perspectives and non-linear narration. Levy also makes use of comic elements that create a light-hearted tone.
  • The novel's main themes are women and patriarchal pride, ambition, strength and survival and the importance of relationships and connections.

Small Island

Small Island follows the lives and experiences of Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, and Queenie and Bernard Bligh before and during 1948. Hortense and Gilbert arrive in England and face challenges there because of the colour of their skin. There are flashbacks to the past of Hortense dreaming of England in Jamaica and of Gilbert meeting Queenie and serving in the RAF during WWII. Queenie is their landlady, since her husband, Bernard, never came home from the war. One day, he turns up and is shocked to find she has rented the place to black tenants. Queenie had been pregnant all along and gives birth to an illegitimate mixed-race child, and she begs Gilbert and Hortense to raise them. They accept.

Small Island doesn't have a singular main character, but four. The main characters of Small Island are Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard.

Small Island is a novel written by Andrea Levy. It is told from multiple perspectives, in a non-linear order.

Small Island deals with themes of race and racism, the immigrant experience, ideas of home, belonging and alienation. The novel's central themes are the role of women; the way that immigrants fight against discrimination through a sense of self-worth and pride, ambition and strength; and relationships and connections between people.

Andrea Levy is an English author of Caribbean descent. She is known for her novels, Small Island (2004) and The Long Song (2010). As the daughter of Jamaican Windrush immigrants, Andrea Levy is preoccupied with tracing the black, Caribbean identity and experience in Britain, and the interconnectedness between Caribbean and British histories.

Final Small Island Quiz

Question

When was Small Island published?

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Answer

2007

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Question

From whose perspective is the novel's prologue told?

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Answer

Hortense

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Question

Summarise the prologue.

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Answer

  • Queenie goes to the British Empire Exhibition as a child
  • She meets a black man and they shake hands

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Question

Who is Hortense raised by in Jamaica?

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Answer

She is raised by her father's cousins Mr Philip and Miss Ma, alongside their son Michael, and her grandmother, Miss Jewel, who is their servant.

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Question

What happens during the hurricane that took place in Hortense's adolescence?

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Answer

  • Hortense takes shelter with Mrs Ryder
  • Michael finds them and comforts Mrs Ryder
  • Jealous of Michael and Mrs Ryder, Hortense tells everyone they are alone in the school together
  • Scandal ensues!

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Question

What is Hortense and Gilbert's plan for migrating to England?

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Answer

  • Hortense will give Gilbert the money for the trip
  • Hortense and Gilbert must get married to make it socially acceptable for Hortense to migrate with a man
  • He will find a place for them to live
  • She will join him once he does

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Question

What jobs does Gilbert take over the course of the novel?

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Answer

  • RAF soldier
  • Coal shifter and driver
  • Postman driver

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Question

Who is Elwood?

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Answer

  • Elwood is Gilbert's cousin
  • He's a proud Jamaican patriot
  • He encourages Gilbert to invest in a beekeeping business that fails

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Question

How does Gilbert meet Queenie?

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Answer

He guides a mentally ill man home, Arthur Bligh, who is her father-in-law.

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Question

Why does Queenie marry Bernard?

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Answer

Queenie was able to escape the farm she grew up on by living with her Aunt Dorothy in London. But when Aunt Dorothy dies, she is afraid she will have to return to the farm and marries Bernard as a way out.

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Question

Why doesn't Bernard return home after being released from jail in India?

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Answer

He sleeps with a prostitute and is so afraid that he has contracted a sexually-transmitted disease that he cannot face Queenie. So he spends 2 years living in Brighton.

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Question

What is the unexpected event at the end of the novel?

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Answer

  • Queenie has been pregnant and she goes into labour
  • The baby is dark-skinned
  • The baby is Michael Roberts' son!
  • Queenie begs Hortense and Gilbert to take him

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Question

What are some words we can use to describe Hortense's character?

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Answer

  • Hortense has an overinflated sense of superiority
  • She is prejudiced and proud

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Question

What is the problem with Queenie's character?

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Answer

Although she means well and opposes racial discrimination, she still holds prejudiced and backwards views about black people.

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Question

What are the key narrative devices used in the novel?

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Answer

  • Multiple narrative voices
  • Non-linear storytelling

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Question

What are some aspects of comedy in the novel?

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Answer

  • Light-hearted tone
  • Irony
  • Comic misunderstandings
  • Mockery of human folly

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