Review: The Long Song, Andrea Levy

At last I have read something by Andrea Levy! I have been meaning to do so for many moons now, and when my book club decided to go with Angela Carter instead of Andrea Levy for next month, I trotted round to the library and got The Long Song. I wanted Small Island but it turned out I couldn’t be bothered climbing all the way up the stairs to the second floor where they keep the non-new fiction. (I know Long Song came out in 2010. Don’t ask me to explain the new/not new classification system of the New York Public Library.)

The Long Song is the story of a slave girl named July, the daughter of a slave on a Jamaican plantation and the plantation’s overseer. Taken from her mother, she becomes a house slave, serving as lady’s maid to the foolish, self-centered, and easily led Caroline Mortimer. July’s life, lasting through the Baptist War in 1831 and the (nominal) emancipation of the Jamaican slaves, is framed as a story written by the mother of a printer, Thomas Kinsman, with occasional editorial asides from Thomas Kinsman to clarify matters and make pointed remarks about his mother’s reliability.

What was very good indeed: (and I loved this) The complex depiction of racism and prejudice throughout the book. We see all different varieties of racism, from the open hatred and contempt of the overseer, to the weak-willed giving in to racism of many of the other white characters, to the pride July takes in being mulatto, rather than black. I also loved the way Levy portrayed the intense cognitive dissonance that was created for many of the characters by their situations, and the extreme ways in which they resolved it. Caroline Mortimer, for instance, causes something pretty horrible to happen midway through the book, and she deals with it by pretending that something totally different happened; this parallels July’s need to paint a happier, or at least a tidier, picture of the events of her life.

The unreliability of July as a narrator was enjoyable, as it emphasized the back and forth between the casual, slangy, careless way the character July speaks, and the very Victorian speech patterns of the narrator (whom we know to be a much older July). There were times when the narrator would tell the story one way, then pause to say that, okay, that’s not really what happened, my son wants me to tell the truth, so this is what really happened. I loved that, particularly as employed at the very end of the book, but I thought Levy could have made better use of it. I have told y’all before that I like an unreliable narrator, but what I like about an unreliable narrator is reaching the end of the book and not being sure what to believe. When July was being unreliable, it was usually made clear and corrected.

In spite of these excellent aspects, I had a hard time connecting with the characters and thus loving the book. I felt like I was at arm’s length the entire time, and I couldn’t exactly discern why that should be the case. I might have been doing it myself, self-protecting because I find books about slavery so viscerally upsetting. Or it might have been Andrea Levy’s choice of narrator, and the way that July very rarely gives the reader a glimpse of her most deeply-held emotions. As a trend, I like characters to the exact extent that they want something I can sympathize with.

  • Sounds like it was a good read even if not the best ever read, and you’re probably right that it would make a good book club book. I don’t really like unreliable narrators, I don’t think….I can’t think of any examples where I do.

    • Indeed not? I don’t always like unreliable narrators — a picaresque novel is rarely my friend — but when it’s done well, I think it’s wondrous.

  • I have never read Andrea Levy before, but I have her other book on my TBR pile. It has been there for a while…

    • I’ve always thought Small Island sounded better anyway. I’m still planning on reading that one.

  • I started reading ‘The Long Song’ but quickly stopped reading it, because I found that the book dealt with the issue of slavery too lightly, even flippantly. However, your review is tempting me to bring the book out from my book shelves and give ‘The Long Song’ another chance.

    • I can absolutely see why you’d have that reaction. There is an extent to which it’s flippant about slavery, but I think the author makes it clear that this is the way July-as-narrator is protecting herself from painful memories. The agony of slavery is definitely still there, when July wants to deal with it.

  • What you said about the complex depiction of the racism is enough to make me want to read it.

    On an unrelated note, I’m very curious to hear what you think of The Magic Toyshop. I’m an Angela Carter fangirl, but she’s such a polarising author. I usually love reading people’s thoughts on her books even if they don’t like them.

    • I’ll be posting a review of Magic Toyshop pretty soon, probably. I didn’t feel polarizing about her: no incredibly strong feelings one way or the other. I liked her though!

  • It’s weird, because I had almost the same reaction to Small Island, which I read several years before I started to blog. While I did enjoy the story, and thought that it was a good read, there was something about the narrative style and choices that kept me arms length from the book. I can also understand that the subject matter would have been difficult to deal with. It seems that slavery inflames so many readers, myself included. This was a very descriptive and wonderful review, Jenny, I enjoyed it a lot!

    • Well, damn. I was having such high hopes for Small Island. I love multiple narrators ordinarily.

  • I felt much the same way about Small Island. She really does show the complexity of racism in that book as well, but I too felt an emotional detachment from the story and the characters. There were many narrators and I was really only interested by one of them, so…eh.

    • Which one, if I can ask? I am sort of thinking I might give Small Island a miss for the time being and just watch the BBC miniseries. It’s got Benedict Cumberbatch!

  • I only have to go as far as my shelf for Small Island, but I have yet to read Andrea Levy – my bad! This is an intriguing review and the comments above seem to indicate the same issue running through her writing. Sometimes I don’t mind a bit of distance here or there, and like Nymeth, I’d read this for the complex representation of racism alone. Seems I really must get that book down off the shelf in 2012.

    • I’ll be interested to see what you think! I’m a little relieved to see that other people had the same response to Andrea Levy, even though it does give me less hope that I’ll love Small Island as I was hoping to do.

  • I don’t like to feel detached from the characters, but I do like the interesting structure of this book (as you describe it). But I also have a hard time with graphic violence. What to do? Maybe I will skim this one.

    • Don’t read it, you won’t like it. It’s more upsetting than you’re thinking.

  • If you didn’t connect with the characters, I probably won’t either. Those are always the books I never finish. Great review.

  • Jennifer Ekwebelam

    The beginning of ‘The Long Song’ was quite captivating, and I thought this was building up to be a very enjoyable read. I enjoyed the story being written in first person, and the “Cha!” and “no fuss-fuss”-attitude of the teller was a breath of fresh air. However, it did take a long while for the main plot to evolve.

    Robert Goodwin, the plantation overseer, ended up being unpredictably irrational.

    I also couldn’t identify in any capacity with the main character, July, who seemed airy and immensely passive to issues relating to her. She proved very flaccid to the end, and I could identify more with the storyteller than with the character, which is in itself a paradox, seeing as they are meant to be one and the same. I also didn’t find it realistic that July spent all those years as a castaway, yet eventually “rehabilitated” herself to such an extent as to write her memoirs in such capacity as demonstrated in “The Long Song”.

    But it did have some positives. It’s a good historical reference, and Levy did a great job in capturing the essence of everyday life in 18th century Jamaica. It was also an eye-opener to the Genesis of 21st century African-Americans’ obsession with having fairer skin and “good hair”, since their forefathers were relegated for having the same features.

    • It’s definitely a very good historical novel, and I liked the portrayal of different kinds of racism. But yeah, July wasn’t a character I could love, and I do prefer to have a sympathetic protagonist in the books I read. (I know you’re not supposed to prefer that! :p)