Friday, July 6, 2012

The Long Song--Review

This was another book I snapped up for a few dollars when Borders went out of business while I was in the process of assembling my list for the 52 Country Challenge. I didn't know much about Andrea Levy except that she had written "Small Island"--I didn't even know that she was a British author of Jamaican heritage rather than an author who had been born in the Caribbean. Once again I thought of setting the novel aside, this time in favor of "The Book of Night Women", which was written by a Jamaican author, but I decided, for no particular good reason than to not waste the minimal amount of money I'd spent on the book, to go ahead and take this book with me on a short beach vacation.

I wasn't sure, at the beginning, to know what to think of the tone of this book. It has a very sprightly rollicking feel to it---more like "The History of Tom Jones" or "The Memoirs of Fanny Hill" than a book that purports to deal with the horrors of slavery. Indeed, as I discovered after reading the novel and did further research, that had been the challenge that Ms. Levy set for herself--to tell the story of slavery with honesty, but without overwhelming the narrative with harrowing details. Right from the beginning the reader knows that the narrator, an elderly woman who is the son of the supposed publisher of the book, cannot be trusted--she launches into two versions of her own birth (one in which her mother doesn't even know that she has dropped out a baby amongst the cane brakes); then interrupts the flow of words to complain that her pompous son has objected to the indelicate commencement to the narrative; and then returns to the tale of her own life, that of July, a mulatto girl with light eyes, a "squealing. tempestuous, fuss-making baby", born at the turn of the 19th century during the last days of slavery in the British Empire.

The vexing baby grows up to be spirited child, who has the fortune (or misfortune) to be scooped up at whim  Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, newcomer and widow,  who takes up the child with no more thought than she would   have acquired a new puppy. Miss July relates her dealings with her new mistress,with the overseer, Robert Goodwin, and with the other servants in the household, as well as the greater events that shake the island, such as the Baptist Revolt. From time to time her own son, Thomas, while peering over her shoulder at the her work, harrumphs over her account; she airily waves him off. It takes a while for the reader that this{light tone is a escape mechanism, a method for Miss July to obscure the pain that she has gone through, and to hide her great secret. Thomas, too, has his own hidden past, which he buries under evasion and pomposity. At the end, Miss July tries to re-write her past altogether; but her son, obdurate, and almost cruelly, will not allow her to avoid the truth. It all started with a chicken...

I ended up really enjoying "The Long Song". Andrea Levy's writing was beautiful, and an excellent echo of early nineteenth century literary style without succumbing to parody. She succeeded in her goal to tell the story of slavery in Jamaica, and to show the enduring scars that remained even from the people who seemed to have survived relatively unscathed. There are, of course, readers who find this approach mannered or artificial, or even inappropriate. All I could say is that I appreciated a book that escaped the deadening force of earnestness, and I am looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

                                                         Four Stars


  1. It is interesting that you ended up liking it. I honestly was too bothered by the light tone (to me it felt horribly inauthentic) and didn't read more than 50 pages. I don't need violence and terror, but I do need something to feel realistic. I considered that the author might be using the story of Caroline to show the contrast, but it didn't seem to go there.

  2. The light tone bothered me at the beginning, too Jenny. It wasn't until towards the middle that I realized it was a smoke screen. I liked the book, but the tone was one reason I decided to read "The Book of Night Women", too.