Tuesday 24 April 2018

Review: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Headline Review, €23.17

Andrea Levy will find out on Tuesday if she is the winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize -- but the literary limelight is nothing new for London-born Levy.

In 2004 she won the Orange Prize with Small Island, the story of a Jamaican couple newly arrived in post-war London. While her previous three novels had largely dealt with the experiences of her own generation, the children of West Indians growing up in Britain, Small Island moved backwards in time to the story of Levy's parents, who came to Britain from Jamaica in 1948 on the SS Empire Windrush.

With The Long Song, Levy continues that journey through time, visiting the island of her parent's birth at a period in Jamaica's turbulent history that straddles the abolition of slavery.

The Long Song is the story of July, a slave girl on the Amity plantation who was taken from her mother as a toddler to answer the whims and fancies of the owner's spoilt sister, Caroline Mortimer.

July, who remembers her mother Kitty in almost mythical terms, lives through the final days of slavery on the island, witnessing the bloodshed and turbulence from within the white man's plantation house.

She has an affair with her mistress's husband, the devout Robert Goodwin, and casts a cold eye on the often ridiculous mannerisms and foibles of both Caroline and her spouse.

To account for the eloquent narrative of this now elderly woman, Levy introduces her son, a successful publisher with whom she has been recently reunited, as her editor.

His foreword, and subsequent (very often annoying) interjections into July's remembering, are meant to marshal this wayward narrator, who is prone to exaggerations, omissions and downright lies. It's a clumsy conceit; and his own story, tagged on to the end at his insistence, is one of the novel's least engaging segments.

Booker chairman Andrew Motion came in a for a bit of literary lashing after declaring this year's shortlist one of the "funniest" in the prize's history, but Levy certainly does offer up a heart-warming and at times laugh-out-loud funny novel from the gloomiest of subject matters.

However, the chairman's other assertion, that Levy's slave narrative is as good as Toni Morrison's work, is far more questionable.

The book brims with evidence of Levy's thorough research and there is no doubting the author's admirable intentions in writing this novel: "If history has kept them silent, then we must conjure their voices ourselves and listen to their stories."

But The Long Song at times feels overly researched, too earnest, a criticism which might seem at odds with the fact that Levy has chosen to bring much of her trademark comedic skills to bear on the story, at times to the point of trivialising what is a very serious subject matter. I have no doubt Levy was aware of what she was doing; it was her intention to give us just one, very personal narrative, with all its flaws. July even directs unhappy readers to another, much more serious take on slavery, Conflict and Change, a view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire.

But ultimately, the clumsy "book-within-a-book" conceit, inconsistencies in the main narrative voice and those elements verging on farce that jar uncomfortably with the weighty (worthy) topic and times, converge to make The Long Song an often frustrating read.

And the voice of July, rendered though it is in lyrical patois by Levy, ironically lacks an authenticity.

The winner of the Booker will be announced on Tuesday, and my money, along with the bookies', won't be on The Long Song.

Irish Independent

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