The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Long Song is narrated by July; an eighty-year-old former slave who worked on the Jamaican cane plantations.  July is coerced by her son, a renowned printer, to write down her life’s story – particularly her early years of slavery during the Baptist War of the Eighteen-Thirties.  July narrates in the first-person singular.  However, Andrea Levy’s approach to this narrator is very unusual – July only speaks in the first-person when employing the present tense.  When she is recounting her experience as a slave, she changes narratorial register and refers to herself in the third person.  Thus the novel gives the impression that it has two narrators, when in fact there’s only one – a narrator who constantly changes the pronoun direction of her narrative voice: using first-person for the present-tense, but third-person for the past-tense.

Thus The Long Song employs that ever-so-trendy device of inter-textual revelation, whereby the novel you are reading is, supposedly, a biography written by one of its own characters – The Long Song even includes a fake afterword that’s “written” by July’s son, Thomas.  I have several problems with this technique; firstly, it’s a ubiquitous trick in the modern literary zeitgeist: it’s just everywhere (see: Atonement, The Museum of Innocence, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Birdsong or City of Glass – to name just a few examples).  Secondly, I think it’s a rather lazy way of attributing a sense of textual authority and literary depth to a novel.  Thirdly, the illusion is entirely unsustainable, as the name ‘Andrea Levy’ (or Orhan Pamuk, or Paul Auster, or whoever) is printed on the front of the novel, reinforcing a sense of artifice and deconstructing the intended chimera: that this is a genuine history written down by one of its survivors.

This may be cynical of me, but it seems that this kind of inter-textual game is just the easiest way to add narrative complexity to a novel – The Long Song fictionalises the story of its own creation, but in a pointless way.  There’s even a linguistic obsession for ripped paper and spilt ink.  Don’t miss-understand me; I do appreciate novels with intricate narratorial layers, but this particular technique (“oh look, the book I’m reading is a novel within the novel”) is so over-used by modern writers that it’s become completely tedious.  However, the 18th Century-esque woodcut cover design of this particular book is a nice little touch.

Clichéd novel-within-a-novel ideas aside, The Long Song is beautifully, beautifully written.  Levy employs an effective blend of standardised spelling with dialectic direct speech; for example, in this first-chapter scene of child-birth:

The pain was jumbie-made; its claws were digging deep inside her so this child might be born:

“Oh me must dead massa” Kitty roared, “me must dead!”

“Your pickney soon come now” Rose whispered.

Every sentence is well-balanced, imaginatively formed and beautifully expressed: there’s not a word wasted or out-of-place in The Long Song. This really is a linguistically impressive novel.

This book also achieves a striking convergence of the tragic with the comic.  There are scenes of heart-rending despair that are so powerful that I had to put the book down and contemplate their impact before continuing. One such moment forms the opening of the novel; when nine-year-old July is taken from her mother by a white woman, because this rich, white land-owner fancies July as a pet to serve her about the house.  July never sees her mother again.  It’s powerful stuff, made even more so by the wonderfully emotive writing.

But, as I say, it’s not all dower; parts of the novel are raucously funny. When all the white members of the plantation house-hold leave the mansion to put down a riot, the remaining black slaves put on a hilarious lord-of-the-manner charade; treating each other like servants, demanding “more wine” and referring to each other as “nigger slaves” in mockery of their white masters.

The first-half of the novel is intense, well-plotted and builds and builds to an event of catastrophic significance (the Jamaican abolitionist riots of 1831).  The second-half, by comparison, is messy, lacks pace and even attempts an insipid love story.  It’s a great shame – had the first 150 pages been expanded to form a full-length novel, it would be an almost perfect literary achievement; instead, the drama and tension, pathos and impact of the first-half is somewhat undermined by the much-less interesting second part.

I’d like to make a few final points about the themes of the novel. The Long Song gives a harrowing account of slavery, details the traumas of rape and poverty and the discomforts of the period. This is partly achieved through a linguistic fetishism for bodily functions and fluids; barely a page goes by without explicit mention of menstrual blood, breast milk, semen, spit, mucus, faeces, urine, sweat and tears.  It’s a powerful act of synaesthesia, but somewhat over-played by Levy.  I’m not quite sure why Levy felt a need to draw such repetitive attention to the physical processes of the body.  I suppose it gives a sense of gritty realism, and it contrasts the physical, bodily duties of the slaves with the luxurious lifestyle of the so-called white plantocracy – but as a stylistic trait, this insistence on bodily functions is too monotonous.  Almost every conversation begins with a reminder that the speakers have “renk breath” and “dirt-encrusted nostrils”.  I think that such statements would have greater impact if they were used more sparingly.

In summary, The Long Song is a good novel.  It’s not without its flaws – but the writing is accomplished, the characters are very well conceived and the subject matter is powerful, gripping and kept me interested.  There is a lot of this sort of slave-narrative fiction floating about these days, but The Long Song is one of the better examples.  I would recommend it; even if you find the plot and pacing to be a bit messy, you should enjoy basking in the beauty of Levy’s writing, in the charming comic scenes and the harrowing moments of tragedy.  Just don’t pay too much heed to the novel-within-a-novel trope.  If I’m honest, most of what I’ve listed as “flaws” in the book are really just irritations to my own taste, and are not objective failings.  I still believe that The Long Song will make its way into the school Literature syllabi within ten years; if only because the subject matter and characters are eminently and easily study-able.  It’s the sort of book that is very much en-vogue with the current assemblage of exam-setters.  It may even become one of those odd modern-classics; a memorable novel that strikes a chord with the public despite its short-comings.

So, all that remains is for you to turn your papers over, read the questions carefully and decide whether or not you want to want to invest in this novel for yourself.  Remember to show your workings.



5 responses to “The Long Song – Andrea Levy

  1. This is a response to the above and especially your post on the site – Asylum. How do you know that Levy is so desperate to be other the black writers you mentioned. I don’t believe Val McDermid has always wanted to be P d James or Evanovich or P Cornwall but when it comes to the black community you assume we couldn’t possibly wAnt to be ourselves but must want to be somebody else. As for the Slave fatigue, I see no reason why Black peoples history should not be documented and read by yourselves, in the same way the Black community has always had to read white peoples history, stories about their lives, dreams and ambitions. I don’t believe they have made any complaints.

    • Maggs,

      I apologise for not approving your comments the instant you posted them: I have only sporadic internet access at the moment, and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to log-on in several days.

      Firstly, it’s quite a while since I read ‘The Long Song’, and so I don’t feel confident that I can comment here in much detail. Forgive me. But, as my review states, I loved the book, and thought it was ‘beautifully written’. A worthy contender for the Booker prize (and, I might add, a book of much higher quality than the eventual winner, ‘The Finkler Question’.)

      Similarly, I can’t recall the comments I made to which you refer (everytime I review a book I browse a lot of other blogs/websites, just to see what the critical consensus on a work is. I often comment on such sites and, as you can imagine, I have visited hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of book reviews since beginning my blog, and I have commented on the majority of them.) – but if I did compare Andrea Levy to Toni Morrison or Alice Walker (or whoever); then it was merely for the sake of genre and narrative comparison. Any comment I made about Levy being influenced by other writers is purely my own *subjective* opinion – it is the impression I was personally left with as I read her book.

      I am not lying when I tell you that, as I read ‘The Long Song’, I was indeed reminded of these other writers. (Just as when I read ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks, I was reminded of Ian McEwan’s Atonement etc.) I believe in freedom of thought (particularly with regards to my own blog) and so I say it as an *opinion* when I note that, in my eyes, ‘The Long Song’ may have been inspired by other works of literature that deal with very similar themes.

      As for my ‘slave narrative fatigue’ – well, I was mostly being sarcastic and pithy with that phrase. As a young reader who has recently been dragged through the UK education system, that is what it is. – As somebody with no specific literary interest in slave/prejudice narratives, I felt that I was made to read more than I would have liked, perhaps disproportionately so (The Color Purple, Beloved, The Classic Slave Narratives, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou). If I was more cynical, I might question why I encountered so much of this genre and so little, say, imagist poetry, or South American drama, or Modernist novellas, or French structuralism or Russian Formalist poems etc. etc. Of course ‘Black peoples history’ (as you so ungrammatically put it) is worthy of telling – incredibly so – and it has produced some truly amazing writing. My comments are merely that, as a reader, I have recently encountered a lot of this genre, and I find that many writers of the oeuvre deal with very similar issues in strikingly similar ways (which is interesting)- my comments were points of comparison, nothing more sinister was intended, I assure you.

      I am not comparing black writers to each other just because they are black – the books I mention are pieces of historical fiction, set in the 19th Century, written by women about the themes of slavery, race, sisterhood and rape. If such similarities between narratives and writers doesn’t warrant comparison, then I don’t know what does. I compare them not because they are black, but because they are functioning in the same genre space, and have striking stylistic and thematic similarities. In the same way that I have, elsewhere in my blog, compared writers who are concerned with religion, crime, hard sci-fi or post-structuralism.

      I take issue with your assertion that I am merely comparing black writers to each other in a reductive way. My review of ‘The Long Song’ also mentions Ian McEwan, Ohran Pamuk and Italo Calvino (a white, a Turkish and an Italian writer respectively). I hope this shows that I am open to ALL points of comparison when it comes to reading. Furthermore, I have used many of my blog articles to compare writers within genres, and to discuss how different writers approach the same genre in different (or in some cases, similar) ways – and these comparisons are in no way limited to just black or white writers.

      As a final comment, I would like to note that my blog is intended to be pretty wry and tongue-in-cheek – but it’s nice that you take it so seriously: debate is always healthy!

      Many thanks for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment.

      P.S I don’t know who Linda Grant is.

    • Yeah, I read about that earlier. Really excellent news. I hardly read any historical fiction, so I can’t comment on the other nominees; but I have no doubt that ‘The Long Song’ was a more than worthy winner.

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