Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'The Long Song' by Andrea Levy

5 July 2011

Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ is one of my favourite novels of recent years – a moving tale of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the Second World War which manages to show you events through the eyes of each of the main protagonists so that you amazingly find yourself simultaneously sympathising with both sides of the racial prejudice at the heart of the story. Levy’s latest novel, ‘The Long Song’, also deals with Caribbean history but is set much earlier, showing us the final days of slavery in Jamaica in the mid 19th century. The narrative style is more straightforward than in ‘Small Island’ with a single narrator, the elderly ‘Miss July’, recounting the events of her childhood and early adult life. It’s an often grim tale of slaves being treated as sub-human by their white masters. But Levy makes the history lesson compelling and entertaining by telling the story of one individual’s life: the wider political events are mostly peripheral to the narrative. And Miss July is a slightly naïve narrator, allowing us to read between the lines to deduce what was really going on. The story is interrupted by some comic arguments between Miss July and her grown-up son who is encouraging her to write her book. As we approach the end of the tale the son enters Miss July’s story himself and these entertaining interludes reveal themselves to be more significant than they first appeared. ‘The Long Song’ is an impressive and fascinating novel but I found it a little difficult to get into: in order to demonstrate the impact of the ending of slavery, Andrea Levy has to devote the first 100 pages or so to establishing how bleak the situation was before and this makes for some understandably uncomfortable reading. But it was certainly worth persevering with.



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