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.