I’m not sure how much I can fairly say about The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s first novel since the Orange-winning Small Island. Its presence on the Booker list – though I doubt another of this year’s inclusions – is evidence enough that many find it a fine book; good reviewers in the mainstream press have almost universally approved; bloggers like Dovegray Reader and Kevin From Canadav have also praised it. For my own part, I just did not get on with it. I’m rather outnumbered in this response, though, and can’t help but wonder what I’m missing.
The Long Song is a book about slavery which allows slaves joy as well as grave intelligence, and in this alone it deserves attention. Levy refuses to cast her narrator, the mother of a Jamaican printer asked to write about her life story as a way of recording the 1831 rebellion, as a victim or even an aggrieved individual. The injustice of the way in which she and her people are treated is a given, it is a part of the fabric of daily interaction in this novel. By placing her narrator in a role different to that of anti-slavery mouthpiece, Levy opens up new lines of interrogation, new imaginative routes into slavery and its associated concepts.
It is difficult, however, to see what she does with this, in part because her white characters are what one might expect from a novel of slavery: the cold master who sees slaves as a commodity; the cloistered woman, curious but unthinking about the ‘negroes’ who enable her life; the well-meaning Anglican with dreams of finding his Pygmalion-like noble savage. Admittedly, The Long Song is a novel about the experience of slavery, and this requires precisely the characterisation of the Jamiacan characters which Levy achieves: demotic, conflicted, proud. This is, however, all the novel ultimately does – and the question remains as to whether we really needed a novel this late in the day that merely set out to reeal that a character like the novel’s protagonist, July, may have existed.
If the novel thus lacks an incisive edge, all that is left for it is a consistency of voice. This it certainly has – the narrator’s character and diction becomes the novel’s central feature, her unreliability, vanity and wickedly wry humour its very grit and grain. Unfortunately, the element of the novel with which I had most issue was the voice – a sort of cod-18th century gumbo, which is most convincing in those moments when Jamaicans talk to each other, and least convincing when they talk to us. The whole novel is framed as a recovered manuscript, complete with foreword by the printer and exhortations to contemporaries on subjects as diverse as petticoats and novelistic style; but it never quite convinces on this level, feeling more like a pastiche of the form than a simulacrum of it. Here’s a section more or less at random:
Reader, those words slapped my face as fierce as any hand my son could have raised. What was he now demanding? Does he require to direct what I write within these pages? I am sure that within those publishing houses in England, the ones my son does speak of with such licky-licky praise, those white people do losten with a greedy ear upon what the storyteller has to tell. Them do not say, ‘Oh, let us know the devilment of this person here, or the nasty-nasty deed of that character there.’ No. Them is grateful for any story told. But not so my son. [pg. 142]
There’s no doubt that my dislike for this style is personal and idiosyncratic – so many others bought it wholly. It allows Levy some metafictional space: the narrator’s story practically finishes, indeed is declared over, on more than one occassion, but is urged onwards by one person or another; the relationship between the narrator and her story’s characters and events remains fluid and difficult; the role of her son, caught between the Jamaican and the British worlds and of course the agent giving the narrator her voice (or at least its megaphone) is intriguing. But much of this stuff has been done elsewhere and with more flair – again, the book doesn’t seem to push itself beyond its initial concepts.
Or maybe I’m missing something that for everyone else is in plain sight. I’ll be the one in the corner by the punchbowl.