Review – The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Set in Jamaica during the early 1800′s, The Long Song could be seen as a prequel of sorts to Small Island by the same author but we shouldn’t seek to compare the two.   July, our narrator, has been encouraged by her son Thomas, a printer, to compose a memoir of her experiences as a slave on the Amity Plantation.

Whilst not as physically oppressive an experience for the white settlers/plantation owners, they don’t come through these turbulent times unscathed either although it is hard to muster up any sympathy for the overweight white mistress of the plantation who languishes on her day bed wondering how to fill her hours.  Likewise the male white characters are rather ineffectual, displaced and most definitely  out of their comfort zone.

The primary focus is not on slavery and its inherent evils but rather the matter of fact approach which July has towards recording her life pre and post “emancipation”.   She never indulges in sensationalism or mawkishness – even the circumstances of her conception, the brutal rape of her mother by the plantation overseer, is all the more powerful for its understated description -

“It was finished almost as soon as it began.  Kitty felt such little intrusion from the  overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe him merely  jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. “

It’s very much a case of “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”.

Somehow, Levy manages to relate a story of continuing brutality in a very light, accessible way, which is no mean feat!  At first, I found this a bit disconcerting as a reader – we’re conditioned to experiencing horrific tales of squalour and maltreatment in stories involving slavery – it doesn’t seem correct to raise a smile at July’s comedic banter with her son or her snobbish attitude towards the field workers after she is elevated to the role of housemaid.  However, as the story progressed, I grew more used to this tongue in cheek attitude which acknowledges past hurts but encourages us to move on and look to the future.

I had to spend a couple of days ruminating on The Long Song to finally get the tune, so to speak… Levy isn’t trying to replicate Toni Morrison or Alex Haley here, this is her own anthem to celebrate the fact that humour and steadfastness can do more to lift us out of our difficulties than a lifetime of mining for misery.  The Long Song is a positive, life affirming story which reminds us all to make the most of what we have – not bad for a relatively short novel!

My Rating = A-

 

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8 Comments

  1. Second review this week on ‘The Long Song’. And my opinion still stands – I want to read this. I’ve never read anything by Levy before, but there’s a first time for anything, right?

  2. I love the way you’ve described this as being “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. I got slightly annoyed by the continual positive attitude in this book – I kept thinking they should be a bit more upset, but I do admire them for their strength. I did find it to be an enjoyable read, but I don’t think I’ll remember much about it in months to come.

  3. admin says:

    Jackie, I think this resonated with me as I have a similar attitude to the sectarianism which has pervaded my home country, Northern Ireland, for so many years – acknowledge the past by all means but the most important thing is to move on. I agree that the novel isn’t one which wowed me but I think it fits in very well within the body of Andrea Levy’s work.

  4. admin says:

    Susi, by all means you should try everything – goodness, I even tried some chick lit recently but the less said about that the better! ;-)

  5. Nymeth says:

    Oh wow – that description says SO much without needing to be too graphic. I’ve yet to read Levy, but she’s been on my mental list for a while. Would you recommend starting here or with Small Island?

  6. admin says:

    I personally preferred The Long Song to Small Island as the latter dragged a bit for me in parts. I meant to mention earlier something that Jackie had said on her blog about the audio version probably being a good bet and I would agree, having listened to a sample of the novel narrated by Andrea Levy, that it really enhances the novel. It’s by no means a perfect novel and little things niggled me but, overall, I was impressed.

  7. Iris says:

    I’ve heard so much about this book and the author. The Long Song has been on my wishlist for a while, and I hope I get to read it sometime soon. Would you recommend reading or listening to the book? Jackie said she’d recommend listening to the audio version, so I thught I’d ask you as well.

  8. admin says:

    Iris, I think I’d actually like to listen to the audio version as well in order to compare the two. The patois is not difficult to understand but the excerpt from the book which Levy reads on her website really sets it very firmly in Jamaica – at times I couldn’t be entirely sure that the book was set in Jamaica and not in the deep South of the US. I think the audio version could be more rewarding although I’ve never actually listened to an audio book in my life – I find it easier to focus on the written word. Hope that helps and doesn’t end up confusing you even more!

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