October 11, 2010

Andrea Levy: The Long Song

Posted in Levy Andrea at 8:00 am by John Self

For Andrea Levy I might well repeat my introduction to Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. I thought her last novel (Small Island) a bizarre omission from the Booker shortlist in its year (2004), but despite my admiration for it, I wasn’t moved to read her new one until it was shortlisted for this year’s Booker. And even then, not until the very last minute.

The Long Song appealed to me less than Levy’s other books because of my previously stated prejudice against historical fiction, and because I wondered how much another fictional investigation of the slave trade could tell me. This second thought cruelly exposes my boneheadedness as I don’t think I’ve even read any other slave trade novels. Perhaps it is better (and worse) put like this: another slave trade novel is like another Holocaust novel. The subject has an inbuilt force and power; how difficult can it be?

Levy makes it look not very difficult at all, because she is a gifted writer whose prose is a pleasure to read. And this isn’t a slave trade novel as such; it’s the story of a life, which happens to have begun in the shadow of the slave trade. To draw a further comparison with Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, the book is narrated in both the first and third person. It is 1898 and the central character, July, in her old age has been encouraged by her son Thomas Kinsman to write her life story; Thomas is a publisher (comparing himself, in a neat in-joke, to Hodder and Stoughton, the parent company of Levy’s publishers). He has also “raise[d] life out of her crabbed script to make her tale flow,” which is Levy’s way of justifying the beautiful writing, though not, I think, a forewarning of unreliable narrative.

To offer equality of opportunity when comparing Booker shortlistees, The Long Song matches Tom McCarthy’s C in beginning with a corker of a birth scene, which July tells twice, once as “ornate invention” and once as the noisy, messy truth. Is this unreliable narrative after all? Only insofar as it is a way for Levy to illustrate the distinction between ‘a good story’ and a true story, what we would like to remember versus how it really was, and it is not the last time in the book that July will be tempted to give the reader a neatly folded scene rather than the loose elements that really constitute a life. A memorable tall tale, after all, sticks longer in the mind (and the historical record) than a dully factual one.

The birth scene is July’s own. She is the offspring of Kitty, a slave, who was impregnated (in fact raped) by Tam Dewar, the overseer of the sugar plantation she works in Jamaica. When it comes to the violent birth, he intrudes on the scene to threaten Kitty with the whip “because I cannot stand the noise. I have a pain in my head, you see, that I cannot remove. So you must be quiet.” The relations between the black slaves and the white owner and overseers are, naturally, central to the book. The plantation owner, John Howarth, is widowed, and is joined from England by his widowed sister Caroline Mortimer. The power dynamic between the parties is never better displayed than in the early scene where Caroline encounters Kitty and her daughter July in the grounds:

‘Oh, she’s adorable,’ Caroline said again.

Her brother, impatient to finish the journey around the estate, called out to Caroline. ‘Well, bring her then.’

Kitty turned to face her master.

‘Come along, Caroline. Hurry. We need to get out of the sun.’

‘Can I take her?’ she asked.

Kitty tried to seize enough air to breathe.

‘Yes, if she’ll amuse you. She would be taken soon enough anyway. It will encourage her to have another. They are dreadful mothers, these negroes.’

‘She’ll be my companion here,’ said Caroline. ‘I could train her for the house, or to be my lady’s maid.’

‘Well, you could try,’ said her brother. ‘But hurry – this heat is getting fierce.’

Kitty stepped to snatch July from Caroline’s grasp. But Caroline slapped at Kitty’s hands shouting, ‘What’s she doing?’

John Howarth raised his whip at Kitty, his face fiercely showing his intent. ‘Be on your way,’ he said, ‘leave the child to your mistress.’

Key here are Caroline’s words ‘What’s she doing?’ – a succinct illustration of a gulf of understanding, and directed to her brother rather than, unthinkably, speaking to a slave, to Kitty, directly. The book is full of such perfect touches. However the greatest strength of the telling of July’s story is in her voice: a lilting patois, intimate, profane, which becomes intensified when she reports the words of other slaves on the plantation, such as Miss Rose trying to console Kitty after the loss of July: “No look so downcast, for your pickney will do her pee-pee ‘pon a throne. In the great house them have chair made of fine wood and them sit ‘pon it – straight back and all and them let them doings drop.”

As indicated above, this is not solely a story of slavery, and life for some of the characters becomes more difficult after the Baptist War of 1831 and subsequent British abolition of slavery. For some though, such as Caroline Mortimer, the most pressing concern when fleeing the plantation (“I am forgot and left only with negroes”) to take a ship back to England is “Will there be dining aboard the ship? Will I need formal attire?” In the event, she remains at the plantation with a new overseer (like ministers of state, they don’t last long), where the story develops into a struggle to modulate slavery into capitalism. We even get a forbidden-love story, with predictable and unpredictable literary twists.

There are only a few false notes in The Long Song. One occurs when the author fails to resist the temptation for a too-clever segue between scenes (the death of one character is followed by a coffin procession, which turns out not to be the expected coffin). And, perhaps inevitably in a relatively short book seeking to take in two big subjects – Jamaican slavery, and a whole life – there are shortcuts. We jump from July’s young adulthood to her old age with no account of the years between; and one significant character (along with two supporting) disappears with no resolution to their story. Both these gaps are acknowledged at the end of the book. July explains the first by recording her desire to give her story “only the happiest of endings” (returning the reader to the questions of truth raised earlier), and by the fact that “I am an old-old woman. And, reader, I have not the ink.” The second omission is discussed by Thomas Kinsman in an afterword to his mother’s story, and even enhances the plausibility of this particular loose end. Levy is clever to anticipate the reader’s objections and seek to head them off at the pass. The Long Song may not quite match up to Small Island, but it is impressive without being intimidating, which is no small achievement in itself.

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36 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    Your mention of ‘boneheadedness’ chimes here, as I always antsily feel the whiff of didactive tracts and inculcative texts when presented with such a story. That’s in no way a criticism of attempts at such historical fiction (although I will always have certain reservations) but an admission of my being dissuaded by a lot of such work, unless I particularly like the writer in question. Totally my problem. Andrea Levy is a writer I admire a great deal and this is obviously extremely well-written but I had no desire to finish it.

  2. John Self said,

    Well oddly Lee, this was my second attempt at reading it. The first time I got bogged down, or bored, and gave up. I only decided to try it again because I wanted to complete the Booker shortlist. This time I found no sticking points, and indeed couldn’t even remember where or why I had given up the previous time. I suppose this goes to show that the ‘objective’ qualities of a book are never enough if you’re simply not in the right mood for it.

    • danhartland said,

      I bounced off The Long Song quite badly – so I’m interested that it took you a second read fully to appreciate it. I might give that technique a go.

      I agree with your original review, though, that the voice – and the writing – is at its best when the Jamaican characters talk to each other. There are some quite wonderful scenes in that regard, and there’s also a big tick in my margin next to the scene you quote at length. By and large, though, I didn’t buy the ‘frame’ of the novel: all that direct addressing of the reader felt poorly pitched to me. I’ll see how I feel on the second time around.

  3. Lee Monks said,

    Well then, I may plunge (dive headlong? Isn’t it announced tomorrow?) into it once again and see if I have a similarly seamless re-attempt. I didn’t like Bluebeard or Taxi Driver first time…

  4. I think my biggest problem with this book is that, like a lot of readers who’ve gone through the UK English lit. school syllabus, I’m suffering from slave narrative fatigue. ‘The Long Song’ doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as it does parade about the streets in a neon jacket of them.

    It seems to me that Levy so desperately wants to be Toni Morrison or Alice Walker that much of the narrative ends up being irritatingly derivative. Even down to the obsession with female bodily functions (or, as a friend of mine calls it, the ‘gynaecological barrage’) that is such a defining characteristic of modern slave fiction.

    Great review though.

    http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/

    • P.S. I’ve finished the longlist, and I stand firm; I think that ‘C’ should win.

      • LeeMonks said,

        I only hope that surge in ‘unfathomable’ betting didn’t have any bearing on anything other than a bit of cheeky promotion. Though I still think ‘C’ will squeak it on yet another ‘compromise’ number.

    • Maggs said,

      Mmm interesting. How do you know that Levy is so desperate to be the next Morrison or Walker. I guess you asked her… The other evening I went to a creative writing session hosted by well known African American novelist. I put your point to her, and considering the class was well attended by predominant Black British audience, they immediately responded by asking if Val McDermid is desperate to become P D James, or if William Boyd always wanted to be Julian Barnes?? Why is it when a Black person is successful, they always want to be somebody other than themselves. As someone who is interested in Black literature, there are not too many Black British writers out there, so for XXXXsakes, give the woman a break!!

      • Marcy T said,

        I think that comparing her to Morrison and Walker is illogical since they are writing about American experiences. Zadie Smith would be better but really the best comparison would be with Caryl Phillips, who has been doing this for longer than Levy. This book has a lot in common with Cambridge–they even read a lot of the same sources and have some similar themes and scenes.

      • Ricard said,

        “Why is it when a Black person is successful, they always want to be somebody other than themselves.”

        I must say, it takes a bit of an imaginative leap to assume that’s the message Tomcat is conveying here…

  5. Lee Monks said,

    ‘I’m suffering from slave narrative fatigue.’

    Terrible to admit it, but I am. It’s like admitting you have ‘Christmas fatigue’ or ‘Charity ennui’ in terms of social leprosy, but it’s true.

  6. Amanda Craig said,

    Terrifc review. I found this much easier to read (and funnier) than Small Island, and the best novel about slavery since Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. Maybe I read less about it than some…. I did find the way all the white people were either hypocrites or selfish monsters mitigated against it, but it’s the one I’d like to win the Booker.
    I share your prejudice against historical novels John – as a contemporary novelist, I also resent it deeply – but this did strike me as “novel” in its Shandeyesque approach.

  7. John Self said,

    its Shandeyesque approach

    Interesting point to raise, Amanda. I must confess I don’t think I ever got to the end of Tristram Shandy (but then, neither did he), and just last week I ordered a lovely new edition of it from Visual Editions:

    http://www.visual-editions.com/our-books/book/tristram-shandy

  8. Lee Monks said,

    That’s the most enticing-looking book I have ever seen. Even more so than some of the Twisted Spoon stuff. 18 sheets, though? Hmm.

  9. Linda Grant said,

    Andrea Levy is a friend and neighbour and I can confirm she does not desperately or even mildly want to be Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.

    • I’m not saying she does; but that’s the impression I was struck with as I read the novel. It’s a good book; just a little over-egged for my tastes. There’s a review on my blog for my more in-depth thoughts.

      • I am with Linda on this one. Yes there is slavery in the book, but it has no echoes of Morrison or Walker. I don’t find the book “over-egged” at all — it is a very interesting study of how the times and circumstances affected a very interesting character. The result for me was in immensely rewarding book. I will be cheering if it wins the Booker, even though Galgut would be my first choice.

  10. Linda Grant said,

    Well, all three write about slavery, but there the resemblance ends.

  11. I completely agree The Long Song is impressive and not intimidating. I really enjoyed this novel and was glad it made the short list. I haven’t read Small Island yet, but I’m looking forward to it!

  12. Amanda Craig said,

    It’s also very funny, which is unexpected in such a novel. ‘C’ just didn’t do it for meIt struck me as very much a young man’s book.

  13. Justine said,

    I think that one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is that it is really not at all about the slave trade; that just happens to be the background for the life that is being narrated. In truth, this is a novel about a woman and her amazing capacity for self-preservation, the decisions she makes and the outcomes of those decisions.
    I found it a very sad read.

  14. I’m pleased to hear it’s not a mini-version of Morrison or Walker, because I rate neither.

    That “what’s she doing” line is very good, and nicely picked up on John. I admit, I have a similar aversion to any book that sounds didactic. I inwardly groan when confronted with another book about slavery or the holocaust (it seems to trivialise it to me in most cases, to be a cheap way to borrow importance from history).

    With regards to treatments of slavery, part of it is simply that most of it is written from a US perspective and it’s neither my history nor a history I’m especially interested in (the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire isn’t my history either, but I’m interested in that, little US history particularly grabs me). Part of it too though is that I thought Walker a poor writer and hugely overrated and I react with obstinacy to anything that sounds similar.

    Being set in Jamaica though means that in a sense this is my history. And as Linda Grant points out Levy isn’t Walker and isn’t trying to be. Prejudice is a funny thing. There are large prejudices, racism, homophobia and so on, but there are small ones too such as prejudices against historical fiction or novels about the second world war.

    All that said, the framing device sounds problematic to me. Hm. Perhaps I should try Small Island and see how I get on with that. Given how much I love Selvon Small Island sounds exactly the sort of thing I might find rewarding.

  15. Max: I found more comparisons to Selvon than I did to Morrison or Walker in this novel, if that is of any use to you. I have the same reluctance with “slavery” novels and this book definitely overcame that.

  16. That is of use Kevin, thanks.

  17. Well, I’ve read it and find it a bit of a boring book. Not my style.

  18. Marcy T said,

    I’m about halfway through the book and am finding myself frustrated with it because the language is so fake. Because she’s trying to have July tell the story, she’s using language that isn’t natural to her (Levy) and instead of it reading easily, it’s strained and just wrong in places. The constant repetition of phrases like “the plantation named Amity” is annoying. I’ve read several of the sources she used for her research and I can see where she’s borrowing, which is fine, but she also throws in details that are unnecessary such as the older male slaves whose penis no longer functions as it used to. It’s an entire paragraph that is unnecessary and has nothing to do with the story. I’ll finish the book but I can’t say I’m going to enjoy it.

  19. Marcy T said,

    One more thing that bothers me but that could be sheer coincidence: Maya Angelou tells the story of how when she was 8 yrs old, her grandmother worked in a fancy house owned by a white woman who refused to call Maya “Mary” (as she was called then) and instead insisted on calling her “Marguerite”. Maya used to accompany her grandmother sometimes and help out. One day she was so sick of being called Marguerite that she purposely dropped an entire silver tray full of china for a tea party. The white woman screamed at her, of course, and called her Mary, thus proving that she’d known her real name all alone but refused to use it. When I read Caroline’s doing that to July, all I could think was that Levy pilfered the name. Of course she might not have, but it did affect my reading.

  20. John Self said,

    Thanks for your thoughts, Marcy. Interesting observation about the Angelou link.

  21. CLAIRE PASQUILL said,

    Andrea levy advised in a recent interview that there is a connection between The Long Song and Small Island. I assume it may be a character connection but Levy’s lips are currently sealed: does anyone have any ideas?

    • MLT said,

      I haven’t read Small Island, but I’ll guess that the characters of Small Island are Emily’s descendants?

  22. John Self said,

    I wish I could help, Claire, but I had no idea there was a link. Googling on the subject, I see that Levy has dropped hints about this several times in interviews. I wonder if she will eventually get fed up with nobody working out the link, and reveal it herself? (MLT’s explanation sounds plausible, but one would have to reread Small Island to find out if there are any direct references to the characters’ ancestors by name.)

    • Caitlin Pearson said,

      I am currently writing a paper on Small Island and The Long Song and have been desperately searching for this link. Has anyone been able to spot it yet? The only connections I have found are:
      1) The girl that helps Queenie’s mother bake pork pies at the beginning of Small Island is also named Emily…but she seems too young to be the Emily Goodwin from The Long Song

      2) Bernard’s CO in India is named Howarth (like John Howarth, the plantation owner of Amity)

      I would be very grateful if anyone has any ideas!

      • John Self said,

        Sorry Caitlin, I mentioned your query on Twitter but nobody responded! Your first theory sounds plausible though.

      • Gesine Kroenig said,

        wow, i’ve just spent the afternoon thinking about this link and cannot come up with an idea. i somehow would want it to be about emily because i would like to know how her story continues, but i agree with your doubts that the emily in small island seems too young…
        those books are certainly very interesting to write a paper on!!

  23. ma99ie said,

    Well isn’t it great that she has just won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/20/andrea-levy-wins-walter-scott-prize?


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