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The Long Song by Andrea Levy

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Posts: 107
Joined: June 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Post by writerinthenorth » Thu January 13th, 2011, 2:43 pm

I came to 'The Long Song' having thoroughly enjoyed Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'. My expectations were high, and she did not merely match but exceed them. Her secret is in finding the right voice for the story, and in the female slave July she found someone to conduct us through the years of slavery and (so-called) freedom for the blacks in Jamaica with just the right amount of irreverence to deny her victim status, and an instinctive native wit to counterbalance the misery, or rather to give it a very individual perspective.

Levy admits in her own notes on writing the novel to the anticipated difficulty of writing about slavery "without it turning into a harrowing tale of violence and misery". July arose from that anxiety as the answer to it. As a narrator she is unreliable, one-eyed and sometimes mendacious, which is paradoxically why we trust her version of events above the orthodox white historian's view. She is not overly interested in the historical details (though the author has clever devices to give us just as much as we need) preferring to let the story unfold for us through her experiences and her relationships. She is often self-deluded, succeeds in fooling us too at times, and we love her for it.

You might be surprised, given the subject matter, when I tell you that this is in many ways a highly comic novel. July's interpretation of her mistress Caroline's foibles, for example, is pure Fielding at times, as is July's relationship with her own son, Thomas, who is presented as the publisher of her story and with whom she has a continuing chafing dialogue about her version of events. The written down speech of the late-educated Jamaican slave is another source of amusement, in the same way that Huck Finn makes us smile as he tells his tale Mississippi-style. Levy writes with the ear just as well as Mark Twain did.

However much we are entertained by July, we never lose sight of her courage, her tenacity, her life-affirming spirit, and through them we see the qualities that all those who survived and eventually thrived in that harsh period must have had in abundance. Levy never fails to get her message through clearly. That she can do so without a hint of didactism or of overwrought sentimentality says much about her ability as a writer of our times and of our sometimes inglorious past.

Review by David Williams (blog writerinthenorth)

Posts: 4585
Joined: August 2008

Post by annis » Thu January 13th, 2011, 7:31 pm

Great review, David. Your opinion seems to reflect those of others I've seen. It's a book I've been meaning to get round to reading myself (usual story- so many books, so little time), especially after reading Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea last year (reviewhere). It was a grand undertaking, but not a total success IMO, in that the author often distances the reader from the story. I puzzled over this until I read an interview with Allende in which she commented that during her research she found the subject so harrowing that it made her physically ill at times. Then I understood that to cope she distanced herself from it, and this is reflected in her novel.

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