Despite the serious and at times harrowing subject matter, this book was a joy to read. Levy has created a wonderful character in the sassy, spirited Miss July, who narrates the story of her birth in a sugar-cane field and her childhood as a slave to the twittering, pompous plantation owner, Caroline Mortimer.
Her story is heartbreaking, but the touches of humour and pathos give the book a lighter feel than, for example, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, or Beloved by Toni Morrison. However, Levy doesn't shy away from portraying the savage brutality of slavery and the ignorance of the white settlers, who treat the slaves as commodities to be bought and sold (and the the case of the women, raped).
This is my fifth Andrea Levy book and I've enjoyed them all. Her first three concentrated on the experiences of young black women growing up in modern Britain, but Small Island and now The Long Song have seen her reaching back into black history and creating some wonderful stories. It would be wrong to pigeon-hole her as a writer who only deals with 'black' issues though, because her themes and characters have relevance and appeal right across the board.
on 4 February 2010
What a fantastic book that illustrates the cruel devastation that was the THREE HUNDRED YEAR OLD slave trade. Not since "Roots" has anything so moving been written. Three hundred years of beatings, unpaid back breaking work, women raped and impregnated by their massa's, pregnant women having to continue working in cane fields, giving birth in the very same cane fields and minutes later resuming work (their very survival depended on it), children ripped from their mothers and sold to other massa's. Grown men being beaten by their white massa's (male and female) and women abused by their massa's in front of their men folk - this is how the story opens and it must be said as it sets the scene for the rest of the story.
In spite of the brutality, the book highlights the sheer strength and defiance of the slaves. It is based around the story of a woman called July, who was born a slave on Amity plantation and lives through the turbulent years that led to its abolition. By page 95 things start to change but the struggle continues. The book is heartbreaking especially when you read how the light skinned slaves were fortunate enough to work in the house instead of the fields and the prejudice and ignorance amongst them that comes through. Although they were often the product of rapes, they saw their light colour as an advantage. The author also has the amazing ability to intersperse the story with funny events. I found myself howling with laughter to the point of tears as I read it on my way to work.
I salute Andrea Levy. I've read all of her books and all of them have touched me. As someone who is descended from slaves (my parents are Jamaican) it is particularly poignant and touching. The slave trade like the many stories of war, human cruelty and genocide should never be forgotten. Slaves were forbidden from reading and writing so those that could have documented their story are now long gone and there were no videos and cameras around to capture these stories. Nonetheless, it is a very important era in world history, it's reach was far and wide. I personally believe that much of the societal afflictions prevalent in African Caribbean and African American cultures today (particularly around relationships and family structure) are as a direct result of slavery, this is my own opinion and observation but when all is said and done, that's a different story altogether.
The book cuts deep but the author does an amazing job of keeping the reader gripped from the very first page. Absolute work of art !!!
The Long Song is the latest of Andrea Levy's books but the first that I have read. Having finished it, all I want to do is get hold of everything that Miss Levy has written. The Long Song is simply a delight, the life and times of the canny, cunning and beguilingly cantankerous Miss July, a hearty if sometimes harrowing recounting of the last years of slavery in Jamaica. A busy schedule meant that I took more than a month to finish a little more than three hundred pages. But even if I had had the time to read, I would have delayed as much as I could - just to spread the pleasure of listening to a unique voice, telling a mesmerising tale. Really, a very good book indeed, a wonderful story highly recommended.
on 27 February 2010
This book is beautifully presented and well worth the cost of the hardback.
The story is stunning. As with all of Andrea Levy's books the sense of a shared humanity runs through the story with the characters seeming very real and a balance of horrendous events and moments of humour. As with all good novels it is extremely hard to leave behind when you finish reading. I loved the fact that the story was written from the point of the view of the main protaganist many years after the events and the interplay between July and her son which link the different sections of the story give the narrative a feel of a retelling of real events rather than a novel. I was left wondering what had happened to July's daughter and would love to read her story! I can't recommend it highly enough.
on 24 February 2014
This was a powerful story and well written. The characters felt real and held your attention. Andrea Levy has an exceptional way of holding your interest. I have read several of her novels and never been disappointed
on 21 March 2016
July was born into slavery on a sugar-plantation. In old age, matriarch to the family of her free and prosperous son, she relates her personal story of Jamaica in the lead up to and early years of emancipation. By timely coincidence, I’ve finished reading this on the same day I’ve attended a talk by Nicholas Draper, UCL researcher and author of ‘The Price of Emancipation’. The novel is enthralling, the characters empathetically drawn and believable, the story by turns funny, human, shocking and tragic. This is history we all need to know, brought vividly to life. My complaint is a minor one: I wanted to feel more. Although July’s desire to mask and downplay her past pain and anger is entirely believable, her archly mocking voice held me at a distance, preventing me (perhaps intentionally?) from fully investing in her. Far better so, it has to be said, than sentimentality or melodrama, so maybe a wise choice by Andrea Levy.
I had read and heard a lot of positive things about this novel before I bought it, and I was intrigued to see what Levy had to say about slavery, as well as the fact that reviews I had read indicated that she had a fresh approach and a lyrical way with words on the subject. I was hopeful that this book would be truly wonderful. I have to say that I was disappointed.
I thought the story was good, and the subject matter enhanced by the way Levy chose to approach it. Rather than the usual 'slavery is terrible' novels (which it is by the way, I'm not disagreeing with the sentiment at all), this is an attempt to give a much more rounded view of the situation. Levy focuses on the life of an 'ordinary' slave girl, July, and those around her. She is interested in the domestic life of the people, and how the bigger events which eventually led to the abolition of slavery, actually affected the people on the ground, as it were. I liked the fact that she attempted to show the effects of slavery on every life, old and young, black and white, rather than through a very narrow lens.
I really didn't like the way the book was written though. I thought July's narration was affected, too stylised in places and indifferent in others. I hated all the winks and gestures to the reader, a la Jane Eyre, and I really hated the stop and start nature of the narrative. The episodes where July's son interferes with what she is writing and she takes time out from the story to berate him, or offer us a lesson or comment on her wish to give herself a happy ending all really grated with me, and totally broke up what could have been an utterly absorbing story.
on 22 March 2010
How do you follow a hugely successful novel such as Small Island? For Andrea Levy it seems that the answer is to write a novel that is very close to heart in its subject matter. Basically, this is what Levy does with The Long Song. But in doing so Levy entered upon a terrain well traversed by some very good writers who have published masterpieces in this area. I am thinking of William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner", Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and Edward P. Jones' "The Known World", just to mention a few. Alas, Levy's "The Long Song" is a pale shadow of these masterpieces.
Set in Jamaica, towards the end of slavery and in the context of the Baptist upheaval, The Long Song tells the story of July from birth as a slave up to her maturity and emancipation. The plot arises out of this backdrop: Kitty, a slave, who lives on a plantation called Amity gives birth to July after being raped by an overseer. Caroline Mortimer arrives from England to live with her brother John Mortimer who owns Amity. Caroline takes a fancy to July and takes her almost as her pet. She changes July's name to Marguerite. The story is then broadly propelled by the relationship and actions of these two protagonists, July and Caroline.
Levy uses an interesting narrative approach to frame her novel. She has Lucy telling her story to her son, Thomas Kinsman, who acts as an editor - indeed he writes a foreword and afterword to the novel. Some of the things Lucy narrates have been handed down to her so we get a feeling that Lucy's story is being told in the oral tradition.
Right from the outset, the opening lines of chapter one suggest that Levy is going to be gentle in her approach to telling her story about slavery. For instance, she describes the incident of a rape in euphemistic terms. Ironically, Levy then addresses the reader directly stating that her son believes she is being too "indelicate" in her approach. Incidentally, addressing the reader directly is a feature that runs throughout the novel. It was a feature of some 18th and 19th century novels. Two examples come to mind: Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" and Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre". However, I found the use of this device in The Long Song rather patronizing and tedious.
It must be acknowledged that what is on display in this novel is not so much the brutality of slavery but rather a celebration of the culture born out of slavery, and praise for the survivors of slavery. But the way these laudable aims are handled produces a weakness in the novel. Levy wants to explore every positive aspect of life during slavery. However, Levy does not manage to weave things together very well and the result is a lack of focus.
About half way through the novel the narrator tells us that her story is ended but her editor son encourages her to continue. It turns out that this son, Thomas, was fathered by a slave who had gained his freedom, Nimrod. July abandons this child simply because she: "had no intention to suckle this misbegotten black pickaninny." This was an episode worth exploring in order to examine the dynamics and ramifications of slavery that had led to this kind of psychology but instead the opportunity was overlooked as Levy just skirted over the incident. It also would have been an exploration that connected the past to the present in that, that kind of psychology still exist in various guises today.
The Long Song failed to engage me as I thought it would. Even with the uprising in full swing half way through the book I was still not taken in. I suppose the main reason why I was not engaged was to do with Levy's overall scheme. It is a book that appears to want to be several genres at the same time: novel, memoir and history. However, ultimately the book is a novel and Levy lacked the skills to bring these other aspects into the structure and story of the novel. For me this meant that at times the style felt clumsy and a little too contrived with some fantastic and improbable twist of plot.
This novel is a huge disappointment. Levy simply had to write about slavery, almost as a right of passage, but it seems to me that she had very little to add to the literary cannon of slavery.
on 2 July 2011
I loved Small Island and this is the second Andrea Levy novel I have read - I loved this too!
A great insight into the age of slavery and a great story too. Miss July is a very memorable character that you feel you know and deeply care about.
I couldn't put this book down and read it from start to finish in about 4 days, which for me is fast!
on 1 February 2012
The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth novel following Every Light In The Whole House Burnin', Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit Of The Lemon and the critically acclaimed Small Island. It won the 2011 Walter Scott prize and was along with other titles on the blog shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It is the first Andrea Levy novel that I have read.
The Long Song concerns the uprising of slaves in colonial Jamaica in 1831, which was known as the Baptist War, or rather it provides the backdrop to our tale, as our narrator was not caught up in it but her story, or the bulk of it, occurs at the time of this upheaval.
It is constructed in a very unusual way, using a strange form of double direct address, we are first addressed by Thomas Kinsman, a printer frustrated at his mothers attempts to tell him stories who encourages her to write them down to be printed. When the narrative changes hands she too, outright addresses her potential, unseen readership. To further complicate the narration, in her writing about her past Thomas Kinsman's mother July refers to herself in the third person, but in the "present day" part of the story she refers to herself in the first. So there is a double authorship at work here, Andrea Levy is our author of a fictional story, and her character July is the author of her own true story.
To compound the complicated narrative, July is an unreliable narrator, not just through a lack of remembering over time but, as a willful deceit, wanting the reader to think better of her, or wanting to forget the worst of moments. At these points, the present day will interrupt the story as Thomas reads her latest pages and challenges her on their veracity. But Thomas is not fully aware of his own mothers history, that's part of the point, so there's always a chance that some of what July tells us may not be what actually happened. Despite the tricksy narrative web Levy has weaved, it still works and proves easy to navigate.
Slavery is one of those issues like with The Great War and The Holocaust, that's so important that it continues to be written about "Lest We Forget". The United States may now have its first Black President but the big White House he lives in was built by the blood and sweat of slaves.
These are Jamaican colonial slaves working on sugar cane plantations and we begin by meeting Caroline Mortimer who has travelled to America to live on her brothers estate. As her brother John Howarth gives her the grand tour they come across Kitty and her daughter July. The manner in which Howarth speaks of Kitty as if she were mere livestock, boasting of her leg muscles brings home the inhumanity and barbarism of the era. Caroline is then allowed to just take July from Kitty as her pet as if she were a kitten, and change her name to one which she prefers. And so July grows up in service to the white folks.
Despite it being called The Long Song it is not particularly long, coming in at just over 300 pages. The voice is authentic, but though the story is an accurate portrayal of the time, it is the kind of story that has been told many times, so even with its probable historical accuracy it can feel slightly like cliche. In terms of the 2010 Man Booker Prize I am beginning to feel that Room was the most affecting but it loses points for being exploitative in a way that The Long Song isn't. The only book I have not yet read is C by Tom McCarthy, once I have read that I can say for sure, but so far I think The Long Song may be the best book of the six. Ultimately, I liked it, it made me think of Jamaican Rum Chocolate and that's never a bad thing. I have had Small Island by Andrea Levy floating around my house for some time, and on the strength of this book will definitely give it a look 8/10