The Long Song by Andrea Levy
I was so glad to have finally got round to reading The Long Song. It had been sat on the ‘To Be Read’ pile by my window since Christmas but it wasn’t until I was away over Easter that I was actually able to take the time to read it. It was definitely worth the wait: The Long Song is a beautifully written novel which deals with a really important, and often ignored, issue of history. I enjoyed getting stuck into Levy’s writing since, although I had been aware of her after the success of Small Island, I had never actually read any of her novels; The Long Song has definitely encouraged me to read more of her writing, ideally starting with Small Island itself.
The first thing that struck me about the novel was the way in which the two primary interweaving narratives interact with each other, as well as the structural bookends written by July’s son, Thomas. As someone who loves an exploration of narratology and reader response theory through the medium of an unreliable narrator, the spaces between July’s story, her present narration, and her son’s mediation was a fascinating aspect of the novel. From the very opening of July’s story this interaction is clearly seen, as July gives one account of her birth before admitting that it is far removed from the truth and retelling a different version. Right from this moment, Levy is introducing an element of realistic unreliability to the narrative. This is July’s past, written down for an audience: some parts she may not remember correctly; some parts she is relying on the ‘truths’ of others; some parts she may not want to tell truthfully to her audience. Thus the structure of the narrative itself, apart from the actual story, makes July feel as real to the reader as any other storyteller reliving their past.
The most fascinating part of this whole interaction between July, July’s story, and Thomas’ mediation lies in the fact that this is July’s story of her slavery. In a piece at the end of my copy of the novel, Levy writes that ‘there are very few surviving documents and artefacts that I could find where black slaves speak of and for themselves’ (p409) and it is this, along with her subsequent assertion that ‘writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out’ (p410), which reveal the true intention behind the complex structuring of the narrative. This is not just July’s story, it is defiantly July’s story, a clear example of a narrator who is finally able to take control of her own story and is determined to tell it in exactly the way she wants. Nowhere is this clearer than in Thomas’ attempts to mediate the story: although he has clear bookends to the narrative, he becomes a real character through July’s complaints about his comments. Thomas wants to direct her story, for her to tell it as he thinks she should; July gives in to him occasionally but, for the most part, she defies him in favour of writing how she feels comfortable, even if that means not giving the reader everything they’re after.
Another major point of interest about the novel is that, despite its subject matter, it is an engaging read which highlights uncomfortable truths without focusing solely on darkness and despair. Levy describes the suffering of the slaves vividly, showing clearly the injustice, persecution, and prejudice the face; yet the characters themselves are not just sketches to prove a point, they are realistic and full of life. This is a very deliberate choice by Levy, as she describes her research leading to ‘instead of a sense of horror… a sense of awe for those millions of people who once lived as slaves’ (p416) and describing The Long Song as a ‘tribute’ to those who endured (p416). Indeed, the novel is a story of endurance, showcasing the strength of those who lived as slaves as they continued to live even when, after the abolition of slavery, they faced just as much injustice as before.
The Long Song is a beautifully written novel, inherently readable, and exploring the complex space between narrator, mediator, and reader. More importantly, though, it is a necessary work of fiction which defiantly gives voice to a people history has long ignored. I wish that I had read this novel much, much sooner than I did; I also wish I could write the thousands of words I would like to write about the narrative structure. It is definitely a novel I would recommend.