three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Andrea Levy
user_rating: 
0

A-The Long SongBritish novelist Andrea Levy is best known for her Whitbread and Orange Prize–winning novel, Small Island ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2005), which confronts racism and immigration in post–World War II England. In The Long Song, Levy follows one woman’s life in 19th-century Jamaica during the final years of slavery. Also reviewed: Fruit of the Lemon (3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2007).

The Story: In 1898, Miss July, a former slave on the Jamaican sugar plantation of Amity, sits down to pen her memoirs. Although initially reluctant to share her painful history, the elderly but still spritely heroine quickly warms to the idea. Her story begins in violence: July’s mother was a field slave, her father the cruel Scottish overseer who raped her. July’s childhood ends abruptly when her light-colored skin attracts the attention of the plantation owner’s widowed sister, who appropriates the young girl as her personal maid and renames her Marguerite. As July comes of age on the plantation, she witnesses a bloody slave rebellion and the abolition of slavery.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 313 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374192174

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"If we read in order to enlarge our experience to go somewhere in place, or time, or the human heart that we could not go on our own, we might expect to find this novel exhausting, horrifying, depressing. Instead, The Long Song leaves its reader ... with a newly burnished appreciation for life, love, and the pursuit of both." Ann Harleman

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"When you add Levy’s almost Dickensian gifts for dialogue and storytelling to her humorous detachment, her ability to see race hatred as yet another twist of the English class system, it’s easy to understand why she has become something of a celebrity in Britain. ... Levy’s novelistic defense against evil and injustice is her humane sense of comedy." Fernanda Eberstadt

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Levy, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in working-class North London, addresses racism at its ugliest and most virulent in this intricately imagined novel, creating a world in which little can flourish. The wonder is the spirit of indomitable dignity with which she manages to infuse her tragic tale." Heller McAlpin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Levy’s sly humor swims just under the surface of the most treacherous waters. ... Her refusal to reduce her characters to merely their suffering does not trivialize the experience of enslavement, but underscores the humanity of all involved." Tayari Jones

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Levy’s use of a delightfully fallible narrator is clever and productive, although at times it can also seem strained and show a tendency towards the schematic. ... As a document of the end of slavery, The Long Song proclaims its own incompleteness and partiality; but as a story of suffering, indomitability and perseverance, it is thoroughly captivating." Alex Clark

Miami Herald 2 of 5 Stars
"Levy’s attempt to pepper July’s narrative with humor is not unwise, given the overwhelmingly somber aura of any tale involving slavery, but the concept rarely works. ... The Long Song, while arresting in parts and historically informative throughout, ends up largely unsatisfying." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Critical Summary

Before opening a book on slavery, many readers must brace themselves, knowing from past experience the emotional toll it is likely to take. The Long Song, however, strikes an altogether different tone from that of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) or Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2009). Peppered with humor and her trademark wit, Levy’s fifth novel paints "a vivid and persuasive portrait of Jamaican slave society" (New York Times) that is highly readable and rarely depressing. Only the Miami Herald critic disagreed, describing some characters as "caricatures" and the author’s light tone as ill-conceived. Still, most agreed with the Boston Globe’s assessment that "[t]hrough all her trials July’s joie de vivre shines."