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.