The Long Song, Andrea Levy

Purchased from the Book Depository

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is a rare book for me. I approached it with a list of concerns that I was pretty certain would lead me to find it wanting and concerns like that generally get confirmed; I concluded it feeling that Levy not only had disposed of them, she had produced a highly readable and informative book.

Why was I reading it in the first place? Levy’s last novel, Small Island, won a slew of prizes (Orange, Whitbread, Commonwealth Writers’) and was adapted in a popular BBC series that aired in December. I have not read it nor seen the mini-series but intend to — she seems to explore some of the same turf that Sam Selvon’s Moses trilogy (reviewed here ) did in an earlier generation. The Long Song seems likely to be on some 2010 prize lists (it is already on the Orange Prize longlist) so I figured I would start here and then decide whether to work backwards.

And those concerns? The novel is set in Jamaica in the first half of the nineteenth century. The driving part of the story is about slavery on the sugar plantations and what happens when the faraway colonial masters in Britain proclaim an end to that slavery. I’ll admit that I felt I’ve read as many slavery novels as I think I want to, even if most are about the American experience. An even bigger concern was that all early descriptions of the book indicated Levy told this story in an almost lyrical fashion — and I was pretty sure that this grumpy reader would not find that appropriate, given the horror of the circumstances.

Score one for the author. The book is definitely about slavery and the transition from it in Jamaica. While Levy does not shy from recounting some of the abuses and the horror of that practice, she does it an almost romantic fashion. Like Selvon, there is a fair bit of “survival” humor in her story — unlike him, it has much less of a bitter edge. And she succeeds admirably in peopling her book with a cast of interesting characters; the way that they adapt to their fates (be it as slaves or masters), rather than the larger story around them, becomes the intriguing tale.

UK publisher Headline Review has produced this book in an unusual fashion — an embossed cover, with no dust cover, using the inside front cover to introduce the book and the inside back cover for its brief author bio. That front inside cover excerpt is also the opening of the book:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work. My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

July is a slave girl who lives upon a sugar plantation named Amity and it is her life that is the subject of this tale. She was there when the Baptist War raged in 1831, and she was present when slavery was declared no more. My son says I must convey how the story tells also of July’s mama Kitty, of the negroes that worked the plantation land, of Caroline Mortimer the white woman who owned the plantation and many more persons besides — far too many for me to list here. But what befalls them all is carefully chronicled upon these pages for you to peruse.

Perhaps, my son suggests, I might write that it is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of the people who lived it. All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a novel they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.

That’s as concise and exact a book summary as I have read in a long time — and I can testify that it is honest. The three central characters are introduced, with an appropriate indication that there will be many others. The setting, both geographical and political, is established. And we are given the hint that the “thrilling journey” which the publisher son desires may not be what the narrator intends to produce.

All of The Long Song comes in the form of a “novel” draft written by July, now a woman of advanced years living with her son and his family. She was born a slave, grew up as a slave and lived most of her life as a freed-slave. Levy has chosen to use her characters not to illustrate and develop that overall political theme; rather she uses the setting and circumstances as a ground on which to locate a fascinating cast of characters.

Here is July’s entrance (literally) into the novel:

July was born upon a cane piece.

Her mother, bending over double, hacked with her cane bill into a thick stem of cane. But it did not topple with just one blow. Weary, she straightened to let the fierce torrent of raindrops that were falling run their cooling relief upon her face and neck. She blinked against the rain, wiping the palm of her hand across her forehead. When the serrated edges of the cane leaves dropped their abrasive grit into her eyes, she tilted her head back to permit the rain wash them with its balm. Then she stooped to grab the base of the cane once more to strike it with a further blow.

So intent was she upon seeing that the weeping cane was stripped of its leaves — even in the dampening rain its brittle edges flew around her like thistledown — that she did not notice she had just dropped a child from her womb. July was born right there — slipping out to fall bloody and quivering upon a spiky layer of trash.

Those two quotes don’t just illustrate Levy’s style, they also provide an indication of what she asks from the reader. The novel is written oral history, recounted by a central participant — like most oral histories, it has elements of both fantasy and playing with reality that call upon the reader to give the writer licence. If you don’t like doing that, you won’t like the book — if you are up to it, Levy does deliver a reward.

The Long Song is a story of adaptation and survival in difficult circumstances, not just for the slaves but for their masters, for both are essentially powerless to address those circumstances. Caroline, who ends up owning Amity, doesn’t start out that way. She arrives as a fat, young, spoiled English widow on the plantation owned by her brother who will soon die in circumstances that I’ll leave you to discover. While the novel has its necessary share of villains, Levy chooses not to develop any of them as central characters — the masters in this book are every bit as helpless in their circumstances as the slaves they own. Unfolding history has a way of dragging them all along in its wake.

The result is a novel of fully-developed characters and the story of how they face the world in which they have involuntarily been set. It is not a book about the slave trade; it is a study of a group of people affected by that trade. Levy makes them both lifelike and interesting — and that is all that can be asked from a good work of fiction. And I will be going back to Small Island.

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28 Responses to “The Long Song, Andrea Levy”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    This is already on my TBR, Kevin, and I was looking forward to it even before it made the longlist.
    I think you will enjoy Small Island. A powerful story told with a light touch and a droll sense of humour.

  2. whisperinggums Says:

    Yes, I agree with Lisa. Small island was a good read – serious but droll (good word Lisa) at the same time. Great characterisation as I recall – and some fascinating characters at that. It does, as I recollect, hinge a bit on coincidence – you have to be happy to accept that. Some don’t, but it is a common technique and I thought it worked

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, wg: I’ll probably wait a couple of months before trying Small Island — I can see where that droll humor could wear if I tried too much at once. There is a fair bit of coincidence in The Long Song as well but I did not mind it at all. Seems to me that when an author is building a novel around character you need to let her meddle with plot just a bit.

  4. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    This looks excellent. The subject is obviously very similar to that in The Book of Night Women, but it sounds more readable and more compelling. In The Book of Night Women, the masters were pretty uniformly bad people, plus there is almost no romanticism regarding the treatment of slaves. I say almost because there is one exception, but it ends poorly.

    Basically, after The Known World, The March, and The Book of Night Women in the past few months, I was not a good candidate for this book. But you have me thinking it would make a great comparison and it sounds like it might get right what I found wrong about The Book of Night Women.

    I really should just stop picking my own books and read recommendations from a handful of bloggers, including, very specifically, you.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I thought not just about The Book of Night Women but also The Help (and I have read neither) when I read this book. And I think what most impressed me is that Levy deliberately chose to back away from the obvious story and exploiting it (which I think is what The Help does) and instead develop her own. The book is not perfect by any means, but it does have its own charm.

  6. Kevin Neilson Says:

    Please forgive the intrusion.

    Very quickly, I’m the host and proprietor of Between the Lines and am reaching out to you because I value your blog and wanted to bring Interpolations to your attention.

    It’s my modest contribution to lit-blogging, and I hope its quality is as good as its name.

    No easy feat.

    If you like what you see, please bookmark my page and visit me occasionally. That would be great.

    My academic background is in English literature, comparative religion, and continental philosophy, with a special emphasis on Plato, Spinoza, and Hume, as well as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Searle.

    In the near future, I’ll be posting on Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, and David Mitchell, as well as on Quixote, Atonement, and other one-off books.

    Enough from me.

    Best,
    KevinfromCalifornia

    Interpolations

    http://interpolations.wordpress.com

    Between the Lines

    http://jkneilson.wordpress.com

  7. John Self Says:

    Curiously, I have been eagerly awaiting Levy’s new novel since reading Small Island five years ago – when it was effortlessly my book of the year. Somehow, though, I share your concerns, Kevin, and haven’t been so keen to read this one after all once I read about and around it. My book buying embargo put the tin hat on it, since a promised copy from the UK publicist didn’t arrive, so that means I don’t have a copy to read anyway. Perhaps if it does well in the Orange, or makes the Booker list, I’ll get the hardback, otherwise I will (rarely for me these days) await the paperback. Incidentally, Small Island won not only the Orange and Whitbread but the ‘Orange of Oranges’ (!) for the best book to win the prize in its first ten years. It wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker, which was a scandal, even though it was published in that strong year of 2004.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    KevinfromCalifornia: Welcome — but if you are going to shorten your webname, you have to be KfC II! :-) The Colonel, of course, will be proud of us both.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I would not rush out to buy this, were I you. While I obviously liked it, there is a sentimentality to it that I think probably distinguishes it from Small Island. That leads me to think that I have made a good decision to save Small Island for the future. I don’t know if you have checked the physical hardcover out in the stores, but you should (and that does not suggest buying it). Just as Bloomsbury’s “bendy-back” version of Even the Dogs broke some new ground, the design of this book does as well. Hardly earth-shattering, but it is nice to see publishers trying some different things.

    Finally, I was not aware that Small Island was your book of the year when it was published. For me, that is even more of a recommendation than the formal prizes (and I was aware of the “Orange of the Oranges) that it has won. Motivation enough for me to get to it sooner, I think. Did you watch the television version and do you have an opinion? I wouldn’t consider watching it until I have read the book and since seeing it would require buying the DVD (assuming one will eventually be produced), your thoughts would be welcome.

    • John Self Says:

      No Kevin, I haven’t seen the TV series of Small Island and have no intention of doing so. I don’t see the point, as I can’t imagine how it would match up to the book. (Which I say not to raise your expectations yet further, but simply to reflect that I thought the book perfect in its way, and incapable of proper translation to another medium.)

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Thanks and I can appreciate your opinion. I’ll see what I feel like after I’ve read the book, which is on its way but may have to wait for a month or two before I get to it.

  10. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, I think you would probably enjoy Small Island. I read it over the Christmas break and found there were comparisons with Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kim — that’s exactly what I was hoping.

  12. nico Says:

    This looks good. I also enjoyed immensely Small Island and Fruit of the lemon. I think that it is very important what she is doing, giving voice through her characters to these caribbean symbols. You know, there’s strange similarities between what is called the west indies and latin american literature: Derek Walcott and Garcia Marquez, and now I was thinking how curious it is… there seems to be more than one thing in common with Isabel Allende’s last novel ‘La isla bajo el mar’, (don’t know if it’s already translated).

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Nico: Thanks for that thought — I will certainly keep it in mind when I do read Small Island. I think you are right that Levy is giving voice to some very important thoughts and characters.

  14. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I have 30 quids worth of Waterstones tokens and was trying to spend them this morning. I saw this book and passed over it. Perhaps I should have read your review first as it sounds very interesting

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I’d say it would be a worthwhile investment. I think you might find some interesting comparisons with Fordlandia, albeit from a century earlier.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, tempting, but I’ve not read Small Island and it sounds like that may be the better one to start with, particularly if I should put space between different works by Levy. The comparisons to Selvon make Small Island all the more intriguing.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I have not read Small Island either (am waiting for it to arrive). Off the reviews that I have read, I’d say reading them in order seems to make sense. The TV adaptation of Small Island hits North America this weekend and despite John Self’s decision not to watch it, I think I will give it a look. I’m pretty good at being able to separate television and fiction, so I don’t think that will be a problem.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      Yes, I am too. I see them as two different works. One might be adapted from the other but I look at each as a work in its own right and don’t expect to find the story I read, the experience I experienced, to be replicated in the other form. In fact, what I like about adaptations is seeing how someone else “read” or “experienced” the work, rather than look at whether I think they have represented the work “truthfully” (whatever that is). I may not necessarily agree with the interpretation but that is not a reason for me to not enjoy it. For this reason I like the oft-maligned Patricia Rozema version of “Mansfield Park”. Her Fanny is not the Fanny I see in the book, but I liked the way Rozema envisaged Jane Austen.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was looking at Lizzy Siddal’s blog today too Kevin, she covers this and has read Small Island which she preferred, so between the two of you I’ll definitely check that one out first.

    Please do let us know what the tv show is like.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Episode one (of two) is Sunday and I promise to post some thoughts in a comment here. We have been amusing ourselves with videos of Lord Peter Wimsey recently (I rather like Sayers although it is decades since I actually read the books). Frankly, a timely reminder that you Brits often are rather good at turning fiction into television.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Incidentally, a pingback from your post on John Fante suddenly showed up today — even though you posted your review in October. Did you change it recently or something? Or has the pingback been whirling around in the either for six months? I’ve left it on the comments page, since it has produced a number of further explorations to the Fante Bandini series review. They remain one of my favorite works of the last year, so whatever produced the interest I am glad that more visitors are dropping in on them.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I updated the post to add in a bold subtitle, with the author and book in it. There’s a blog at the Guardian at the moment talking about Fante, which I commented on mentioning your review and some others. Since I mentioned my own there I updated it, I guess when one does that it counts as a new post for WordPress purposes.

    Since I plan eventually to insert subtitles into all my old posts, it may come up again I’m afraid with other posts where I’ve linked to you. That said, some folk here may not have seen your Fante review, and hopefully will now read it.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    That explains it — and I am delighted that the Bandini Saga popped up in comments and attracted some visitors. I’ll be looking forward to more “blasts from the past” as you continue your updating. :-)

  22. Anne Wotana Kaye Says:

    The writing reached epic proportions when the freed slaves moved en masse out of Amity. The old, the young, the able and the lame, livestock, pots and pans, everyone and everything listed in Biblical correctness. It was as a scene from “Exodus” when Moses led the freed future Children of Israel out of Egypt. I actually had tears in my eyes. Another image so reminiscent of a Biblical theme was that when leaving Amity, despite the slavery there was a measure of continuity and security. Milton’s final words in “Paradise Lost” teased my consciousness.

  23. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    I read this book last year and quite liked it, and one of these days I will read Small Island. The Long Song just won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, beating David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet among others. It’s only the second year of the prize, but still…

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I didn’t know about the Scott Prize — historical fiction does seem worth its own prize, but I bet they are going to face some “is this eligible?” issues. I certainly preferred The Long Song to the Mitchell, but I suspect that is because I was more interested in the historical story line. And I too have Small Island on hand, waiting for a longer-than-normal time window when I can get to it. The only problem with blogging is that I have do some advance planning to create the space for longer works — and since I like long novels, that is more or less a continuous challenge.

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