Andrea Levy – The Long Song

Posted on | August 11, 2010 | 9 Comments

Andrea Levy's The Long SongI apologise for my thoughts on this book at the very outset. I’m going through a bit of a stressful phase right now, and while normally, it doesn’t affect the way I approach books, I’m not completely convinced that it hasn’t this time ’round. I mean, The Long Song was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and it’s on the Booker longlist as well. It’s got to be a good book, right?

Well, I didn’t finish it, and it wasn’t for lack of trying! I put it aside at 150 pages – my edition had 308 pages, so I did read about half of the book, and it failed to engage me at any level. Strange, because the subject matter is intense and well, more often than not, I end up empathising and sympathising with the protagonists and narrators of such stories. This time – absolutely nothing.

Set in the early nineteenth century, this book focuses on the final days of slavery in Jamaica. The primary voice is that of July, a slave born on the sugar plantation called Amity, after her mother was raped by the overseer of the plantation. July was separated from her mother, Kitty, when the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, found her utterly charming and wanted to groom her to be a lady’s maid. Caroline, new to Jamaica and the rampant slavery, depended much on July, and the slave girl often took advantage of her mistress’ dependence.

Personally, I thought that the writing lacked the intensity that the subject matter deserves, and almost treated the subject frivolously. I also did cringe, occasionally, on reading some of the lines, although I’m willing to bet that Levy intended to have that effect on the reader.

“Stuff up her mouth with rags, come on, come on,” he insisted once more. Rose took a rag, dipping it in the water from the pail and brushed it against Kitty’s lips. But Tam Dewar, exhaling with annoyance, commanded, “Not like that!” He snatched at the rag that Rose held, then forced the damp cloth down into Kitty’s mouth. “Like this, you fool, like this.”

Rose protested, “Massa, she birthin’, she birthin’!” as Kitty choked to accommodate the bulk of cloth in her mouth.

I don’t think I got used to the style of writing either, where the narrator constantly addressed me as “Reader,” and it switched between first person (present) and third person (past). And, I really didn’t care what happened to the characters – who survived, who didn’t.

Maybe I’m being harsh, but despite the writing being simple, I found reading this book a chore, and didn’t feel inclined to pick it up. I wish I’d finished this book, to see what the end objective was – and maybe, just maybe, the second half of the book would end up redeeming itself. Have you read this book? Do you think the second half is better/more engrossing than the first?

Have you read Levy’s Small Island? I think it’s her most talked about book. Would you recommend that over her latest?


9 Responses to “Andrea Levy – The Long Song”

  1. Jodie
    August 12th, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    I am always kind of wary about reading her books, but I don’t know why.

  2. Joan Hunter Dunn
    August 12th, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    I enjoyed Small Island, I was given it as a gift, so not sure if that means one has higher or lower expectations of a book. I’ve been intrigued by The Long Song – in my mind I think I may buy it if it’s in a 3for2 or second hand, and that was before reading your review. Hope you enjoy your next book more.

  3. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    August 12th, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    I did enjoy The Long Song, but found it very light. I flew through it, but ended it feeling a little disappointed at the lack of substance in a book about such an important subject. I can understand why you abandoned it.

    Small Island is a very different book. It has much more substance and I think you’d enjoy it.

  4. Pam
    August 15th, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

    This is why I come here Cookie. I too found it impossible to connect with or finish and was feeling decidedly bad about it all (not Rebecca bad, but bad none the less) Feel very relieved knowing that I’m not the only one…

  5. Sarah
    August 16th, 2010 @ 12:45 am

    Haven’t read any Levy, but know which one I would go for now!

    As for long lists/short lists/prize winners, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was shortlised for Booker, won Orange… and I found it banal and unreadable. I think such indicators suggest only probabilities. No book is a sure thing!

    Slavery as subject for a novel is so finely balanced. I read (was forced to read via book group!) a Phillipa Gregory based around the slave trade. It was terrible. I felt that slavery was trivialised: and hence found it offensive.

    Still want to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I absolutely trust Toni Morrison to get it right every time.

  6. Stephanie
    August 16th, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    This definitely sounds like an interesting premise, though I see what you mean about it seeming too light for the subject matter. I think the “Reader” thing would bother me for some reason.

  7. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    August 16th, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

    Nobody does slavery like Toni Morrison; Beloved is exquisite and tackles the subject with as much the requisite grace, intellect and emotion.

    I have this on my Booker pile and have had Small Island unread on my shelves for years.

  8. Birdy
    August 18th, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    Wow what a wonderful blog you have here! I am glad I chanced upon this cookie :) Adding you to our blogroll and looking forward to more reviews!

  9. anothercookiecrumbles
    August 20th, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    @ Jodie : Reviews like mine to blame? ;)

    @ Joan Hunter Dunn : Thanks – luckily mine was a library copy, so I’m not feeling too down about it. Glad you enjoyed Small Island. I will try reading it soon, and hopefully, I’ll finish it – I’m not asking for much, am I? :)

    @ Jackie (Farm Lane Books) : Thanks, I’ll try Small Island someday! The lack of substance in a book dealing with a serious subject does kind-of annoy me. It’s disappointing that one can’t finish a “light” book as it’s too… “light”!

    @ Pam : Ah, solidarity! Thank you, Pam!

    @ Sarah : I read A Mercy (Toni Morrison) and didn’t really get on very well with it. I did read Song of Solomon after, which I loved, so…

    With prize winners (and nominees), I normally find that their books are more *likely* to be better than picking up something random from the shelf. I rely heavily on all you book bloggers for book recommendations, but I’ve read so many amazing prize winning books which I wouldn’t otherwise, that I just can’t bring myself to turn my back on things like the Booker and the Orange Prize.

    @ Stephanie : The “Reader” thing did bug me to no end…

    @ Claire (Paperback Reader) : I really must read Beloved sometime soon – but that’s true for so many other books! You’re the fourth person this week who’s recommended Beloved to me! I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts on this if/when you get ’round to it.

    @ Birdy : Thank you, and thanks for commenting for the first time :)

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