As planned, I read The Long Song by Andrea Levy on my beach holiday in South Africa. And yes, there’s sand in the pages to prove it! What a brilliant book. I have never read any of Levy before, although I was aware of her as a Booker Prize nominee. But after reading this incredible novel I will certainly be looking out for her other books, including the critically acclaimed Small Island.
The Long Song is set on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the last years of slavery. Although it deals with some horrific events, it does so with a great deal of humour. This is in no small part due to Levy’s characterisation of her main character, the sassy slave girl July. The reader is saved from being consumed by misery by the device of running a dual narrative of July as a witty old woman looking back on her life. She will not allow her readers to dwell on the sadness of her past.
Levy also balances some of the crasser observations made by her earthy heroine (her opening line is about a black woman being ‘rear-ended’ by a white man) with the tut-tutting of her more cultured son, Thomas. As a reader we secretly delight in the graphic descriptions but are given the opportunity to save face behind Thomas’ admonitions.
The language is vibrant and lyrical and Levy deftly handles different voices and points of view. I also enjoyed the way July and ultimately Levy played with her readers by declaring every so often that what she had written was completely made up then presenting us with a revised, purportedly more truthful, version of the same events. This underlines the view that stories from the past are simply a collection of remembrances which are tainted in varying degrees by the way the teller wants to be remembered.
Although this is certainly a clever, literary book (as it would have to be to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) it should also find an appreciative readership with fans of popular fiction as Levy is such a fine storyteller.
I would highly recommend you add The Long Song to your ‘must read’ list. And if you like that, you should also like my historical literary thriller, The Peace Garden, which deals with the aftermath of the Soweto Riots and its repercussions in the lives of two young lovers.