Friday, 22 July 2011

Book #66 The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth novel following Every Light In The Whole House Burnin', Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit Of The Lemon and the critically acclaimed Small Island. It won the 2011 Walter Scott prize and was along with other titles on the blog shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It is the first Andrea Levy novel that I have read.

The Long Song concerns the uprising of slaves in colonial Jamaica in 1831, which was known as the Baptist War, or rather it provides the backdrop to our tale, as our narrator was not caught up in it but her story, or the bulk of it, occurs at the time of this upheaval.

It is constructed in a very unusual way, using a strange form of double direct address, we are first addressed by Thomas Kinsman, a printer frustrated at his mothers attempts to tell him stories who encourages her to write them down to be printed. When the narrative changes hands she too, outright addresses her potential, unseen readership. To further complicate the narration, in her writing about her past Thomas Kinsman's mother July refers to herself in the third person, but in the "present day" part of the story she refers to herself in the first.  So there is a double authorship at work here, Andrea Levy is our author of a fictional story, and her character July is the author of her own true story.
To compound the complicated narrative, July is an unreliable narrator, not just through a lack of remembering over time but, as a willful deceit, wanting the reader to think better of her, or wanting to forget the worst of moments. At these points, the present day will interrupt the story as Thomas reads her latest pages and challenges her on their veracity.  But Thomas is not fully aware of his own mothers history, that's part of the point, so there's always a chance that some of what July tells us may not be what actually happened. Despite the tricksy narrative web Levy has weaved, it still works and proves easy to navigate.

Slavery is one of those issues like with The Great War and The Holocaust, that's so important that it continues to be written about "Lest We Forget". The United States may now have its first Black President but the big White House he lives in was built by the blood and sweat of slaves.
These are Jamaican colonial slaves working on sugar cane plantations and we begin by meeting Caroline Mortimer who has travelled to America to live on her brothers estate. As her brother John Howarth gives her the grand tour they come across Kitty and her daughter July.  The manner in which Howarth speaks of Kitty as if she were mere livestock, boasting of her leg muscles brings home the inhumanity and barbarism of the era. Caroline is then allowed to just take July from Kitty as her pet as if she were a kitten, and change her name to one which she prefers. And so July grows up in service to the white folks.

Despite it being called The Long Song it is not particularly long, coming in at just over 300 pages. The voice is authentic, but though the story is an accurate portrayal of the time, it is the kind of story that has been told many times, so even with its probable historical accuracy it can feel slightly like cliche. In terms of the 2010 Man Booker Prize I am beginning to feel that Room was the most affecting but it loses points for being exploitative in a way that The Long Song isn't. The only book I have not yet read is C by Tom McCarthy, once I have read that I can say for sure, but so far I think The Long Song may be the best book of the six. Ultimately, I liked it, it made me think of Jamaican Rum Chocolate and that's never a bad thing. I have had Small Island by Andrea Levy floating around my house for some time, and on the strength of this book will definitely give it a look 8/10

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