The Long Song by Andrea Levy

As you may know, Andrea Levy sadly passed away in February 2019 at the tender age of 62. She was a British author of Jamaican origin who became well-known when her fourth novel Small Island ( 2004) was awarded the Woman’s Prize for Fiction (then known as the Orange Prize).

Her novels explore the experiences of those connected British/Jamaican histories, gaining inspiration from her own family and heritage.  Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), is an intimate portrayal of family life that felt like I was reading about the author’s childhood, depicting the challenges faced by a Jamaican family in 1960s London. Semi-autobiographical, it was clearly inspired by experiences she’d had, growing up the daughter of immigrants in London.

In The Long Song, she delves deeper into her heritage, into the lives of slaves on a plantation in Jamaica, telling it through the voice of July, who we meet as she is birthed and follow as fate intervenes and snatches her from her mother, placing her in the main house, where she becomes the maid to the sister of the owner.

Levy wanted to get inside the world of her character in a way she hadn’t seen done before. To imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings, especially the women. To imagine what they were really thinking, how they would have been feeling, the emotions that were not safe for them to express, that we might imagine by reading between the lines of the slanted narratives that do exist.

What I wanted to explore isn’t in our history books. I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record…When the time you are writing about is two hundred years ago, there’s no one to interview and so the individual  view has to come from the writer’s imagination.

Much of the research she encountered were accounts of perspectives that didn’t at all fit with what she sought to show, planters accounts “of negroes child-like ways” and their wives equally misconceived notions on their “defects of character”.

And what an astounding novel results, a natural development of the author’s work as she  claimed her ancestry and woke to who she was and where parts of her family had come from.

I loved it. It’s unique, she narrates from both the inside and the outside, being in the story and looking back on the story of the life of a girl named July, the daughter of a black slave and a white overseer on a plantation in Jamaica. It is at times crass, confronting and yet slightly tongue in cheek, daring you to continue reading through the discomfort.

Miss July narrates the story as a grandmother looking back at her life, committing it to paper at the request of her son, who every evening reads it and comments. She writes her account of that in the third person, interrupting it in the first person to complain about the demands of her son, or to clarify something she wants the reader to know. She’s having a conversation with you as you read, and I found it entertaining.

Now, reader, no matter what you may have heard Caroline Mortimer declare as the next act in this story, for she gave her  own fulsome account of that day to the militia, several magistrates, lawyers and indeed anyone who ever graced her dinner table, this that I am about to tell you, is the truth of what occurred next within that bed chamber. So not doubt me, for remember my witness still lies beneath the bed.

She removes the blinkers, stepping inside her characters showing them warts and all, making this uncomfortable reading at times, yet perhaps more realistic than most. For even those who have been depicted as well intended (white saviour narratives) were a product of their time and of white privilege.

Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists.

She shares the story with great humour and frequent distaste. No one is immune to her stripping characters bare and showing their true selves. So there’s no indulging flights of fancy, happy endings or gratuitous violence, although there is perhaps one character who manages to rise above the rest, but he was abandoned at birth so he deserves to shine a little brighter.

It’s sad to think her storytelling days have ended, but the three works I’ve read are a brilliant encapsulation of seeing through the lens of a life imagined and lived, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Britain, who came to know and imagine the history and potential lives of her ancestors.

The Long Song was awarded the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It was also adapted by the BBC into a TV series.

Buy a Copy of The Long Song via Book Depository

15 thoughts on “The Long Song by Andrea Levy

    • Thank you, yes it is sad, her novels seemed to have a story arc of their own, it’s sad indeed that she was halted in her prime, but wonderful that her work came to the screen and will continue to be read for a long time yet I’m sure.

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  1. Beautiful review, Claire. I thought Small Island was an excellent novel, so engaging and perfectly pitched. As you say, The Long Song seems like a natural extension, building on Levy’s background and themes of interest. For some reason, I missed the TV adaptation when it screened a couple of years ago. One to catch up with on the iPlayer or DVD.

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    • I remember reading Small Island when I lived in London and being excited about the book winning the Orange Prize and opening us up to the types of stories that until then hadn’t really had a wide audience, I think this novel created a shift and a ripple effect, a small one, but one that is happening again, with authors of mixed heritage and those coming from other cultures, beginning to gain traction in the English reading world, and then there are translations, daring to become mainstream, it’s an exciting times for readers! And an encouraging one for writers I hope, to persevere.

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  2. Lovely review, Claire. I was fortunate enough to have been given a proof of Every Light in the House Burnin’ before it was published and waited for each new novel eagerly. I’m not one for TV adaptations but the BBC did a fine job with both Small Island and The Long Song. Tamara Lawrence was a superb Miss July.

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    • I haven’t seen either of the TV adaptations, but if I have the opportunity I’d love to see them. I wasn’t even aware of Every Light in the House Burnin’ until after she died and so eagerly got a copy to read and loved it, it reminded of Zadie Smith writing about North London, and having lived there for 8 years, those books awaken something in me that just loves to read their stories, it feels like being invited to peer into the lives of neighbours in the community, people we don’t know yet share a common habitation with.

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  3. Wonderful review. It’s a wonderful novel, but I certainly found it hard to read at times. I have loved everything of Levy’s that I have read, I know I have read all the novels but think there might be some short stories I haven’t read. Her death came so tragically early.

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    • I was surprised by the humour and the frankness which she puts out there from the opening pages, I really enjoyed it and especially enjoyed the thought that had clearly gone into it relating to the structure and how she tells parts of the story by imagining conversations that never happened, but if they had, he might have mentioned…a clever almost invisible devise to narrate parts of the story and describe events that happened that weren’t part of Miss July’s recollection, but depict part of the history. It beautifully expressed her prowess as a writer.

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    • I haven’t read Never Far From Nowhere, so I look forward to it. I enjoyed Levy’s discussion of her personal process and sharing how she’d interviewed her family before writing Every Light in the House Burnin’ and the challenges of not being able to do that for The Long Song, for me as an amateur reader and writer, it demonstrated a little of her vulnerability (and yes, perhaps naivety) in forcing her to activate the imagination more so than she had done before, and that by reading all those other narratives, she began to read between the lines and to hear the voice of the oppressed and to imagine what they were really thinking behind the lines scripted (to become a form of “history”) by others, which judged a race of people as inferior.

      The Long Song feels emboldened, and Miss July too, in her safe space, at home with her son, permitted to commit to paper vignettes of her life, and yet, still, she hesitates, because that conditioning of her early years is deeply embedded. And he, raised in a very different world, and with some privilege and none of her fear, urges her to share more, not to forget…

      I loved it. The humanity of it.

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  4. I loved Small Island when I read it some years ago. My first introduction to The Long Song was via the TV adaptation, which I found sensitively done, so now I very much want to read the book, particularly after your excellent review.

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