How was Andrea Levy going to follow the mega award-winning literary milestone that is Small Island? How was I going to react to the follow up? Let’s start with the second question, for it is a biggie. I was the reader who forgot to go the rock concert, so engrossed was I in the last 200 pages of Small Island. I wanted to repeat that all engrossing emotional rollercoaster ride. Hortense had me tutting and laughing and sympathising. Queenie had me cheering and sobbing (and I’m talking big runny-nosed sobs!). So you see, The Long Song, had a mountain of unfair expectation to climb before I even opened the first page.
Unfair? Well yes. Because after reading Small Island I sought out Levy’s backcatalogue and discovered that her novels, while focusing primarily on the Jamaican experience, don’t repeat themselves. At the time I read Every Light in the House Burning, my son was fighting his own battle with the NHS. The outcome in real life, fortunately, more positive than in the novel. But it spoke to me. I was more ambivalent about The Fruit of the Lemon. I’ve kept her second novel Never Far From Nowhere up my sleeve. I need to have something to look forward to. The question is will I ever read it, now that I’ve read The Long Song and must wait another 5 years for the next Levy novel.
But I prevaricate and dissemble because ….. well ….. much as I wanted to lose myself in The Long Song, it didn’t happen. By breaking up the narrative stream with the metafictional satire of an author bickering with her son/editor/publisher, Levy wouldn’t let me. I didn’t help myself either by committing what I consider to be a reader’s cardinal sin – judging a book by my lack of connection with the principal characters. July (the slave girl) and Caroline (the white mistress) are no Hortense and Queenie and by page 80, when I still wasn’t laughing/crying/sympathising with either, I decided to let go of the Small Island expectations and read the book on its own terms.
Having accepted that I wasn’t the soul sister of either woman, an amazing thing happened. Empathy for the characters grew and the pages began to turn of their own volition. Of course, the introduction of a good-looking blue-eyed hunk and the resulting love triangle helped. If I’m not focusing on or shocked by the history, it’s because it wasn’t new to me. The Long Song covers some of the same events as James Robertson’s Joseph Knight but the story is told in a less brutal way. The reason for this becomes clear in this video:
The author’s objective was to write a book that enables those with slave ancestry to be proud of their history. Thus July, the slave girl narrator, doesn’t dwell on the cruelties of plantation life, although they are there, incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, emphasised by the matter of factness in the telling. (Dung dripping through wicker baskets onto the heads of the slaves carrying them is not an image I’m likely to forget.) Neither does July whinge and whine about her lot in life – she demonstrates reserves of fortitude and resilience that any descendant could be proud of. It’s telling that the hardest time of her life occurs in the years post-slavery on which she refuses to elaborate because irascible narrator that she is, she refuses to dwell upon sorrow – her song is one of tribute to a people unbroken by the injustice of history.
Yet the white oppressors are not evil cardboard cutouts. Caroline, the fat plantation owner, frequently mocked for her uselessess, doesn’t have a happy life. Robert Goodwin, the adulterating hunk who wants to have his slave and eat her (so to speak), is shown to be a victim of a circumstances beyond his control. And just when I’m attuning myself to these two, they strike such a heartless note that I’m left speechless. It took some time but Levy finally has me where she wants me.