Andrea Levy’s latest novel ‘The Long Song’ is another book that I have had to give a little space to before I could write about it. Its been very interesting meeting lots of other bloggers over the last few days and finding that a lot of them leave a book a good day or two (or even a month or two) until they have digested it and then written about it. We were actually discussing how its interesting a book you read and think is ‘ok’ can sometimes be one of the books that you most remember a few months later. Oh, hang on I have gone off on a tangent…
‘The Long Song’ is a book about the slavery in Jamaica which we are told through an initially nameless narrator (who has written this book for her son is a publisher and thinks the tale should be told) a depiction of the life of a slave girl in the 1800’s. We follow July from her birth onwards through the trying times of her separation from her mother when Caroline Mortimer, not long arrived in Jamaica, decides she wants her as a pet pretty much, through the Baptist War in 1831 and onwards. I don’t want to give anything away other than to say it’s quite a journey because I do want to urge people to read this.
July is a wonderful character to follow all of this through the eyes of. From her very birth there is a drama and a determination around her which proceeds as she becomes a maid from the rich white people left to fend at the age of 9 for without her mother. Rather than become a victim, which would be understandable, she becomes a wily, spritely and rather rebellious young woman who knows how to get what she wants and get away with a heck of a lot. Levy doesn’t just create funny and heart-warming characters there are also ones who become villainous throughout the book. The aforementioned Caroline being one, her tale is that of a rich young woman forced to live with her brother who initially delights in Jamaica and all its ways before turning bitterly against it, she has a complexity to her that I liked though I didn’t like the character myself. She treats her staff poorly, beating them often, is spoilt and yet there is a naivety which comes from her breeding and place in society that’s oddly interesting to look at.
Slavery is always going to be a tough subject and yet the way Levy writes it both hits home the horrors of what took place, sometimes in quite graphic detail, and yet through her wonderful narrators voice there is a humour there. At first when I accidentally let a big laugh out on the tube I felt incredibly guilty, how awful of me to sit and laugh at a book about such a subject. It almost made me waver with the book slightly. However I put the book down for a day and thought about it and through the characters and the humour in their tales of trialling lives I think what Levy is doing is showing you the spirit that some of these people (I am writing about them as if they were real but they are drawn so very vividly you believe it all) had which only hits home the terrible situation to the reader even more.
I have seen some rather poorly received reviews of this book and I can’t help thinking it’s because of its predecessor. It’s hard to not compare this book with the wonderful, wonderful ‘Small Island’, which is an incredible book, yet to do so would be a disservice to this book, I do like to judge an author on each book they write. I could also mention its long listing for the Orange Prize (which I guessed it would – hoorah) but I think we all know the Longlist quite well by now. I do hope it gets shortlisted; I will leave it at that.
If you haven’t read any Levy then this is a great book to start with. If you have already had the pleasure then this book continues to show that Levy is a wonderful author who can take you to far away places with wonderful characters and make it all look effortless. It also has one of my favourite opening lines (have you all been keeping notes on yours) in quite some time. “The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.” This is a truly wonderful book that haunts you in both its humour and its horrors.