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

Every Light in the House Burnin’ by Andrea Levy

Sadly the wonderful author Andrea Levy, well-known for her Orange Prize winning novel Small Island (2004), passed away on February 14, 2019. I remember reading it when I lived in London and the joy of a new literary prize that highlighted exactly the kind of stories and authors I liked to read. Her fifth novel The Long Song (2010) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. It was turned into a 3 part television adaptation, screened in Dec 2018.

 

Andrea Levy’s debut novel Every Light in the House Burnin’ reads like an intimate portrayal of family life, so much so that it felt like reading about the author’s childhood, clearly she drew from it. Capturing the essence of family life from perceived childhood injustices that many will recognise, to the humorous anecdotes a clash of cultures brings, when children are raised in a different country to their parents, she immerses into family life and reimagines those poignant moments that shaped her. From the Guardian Obituary, her family description reads like an addendum to the novel.

Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.

The novel is a portrait of a family in London, the children of Jamaican immigrants, narrated from the point of view of the youngest child Angela (referred to also as Anne), it brings to life moments in their family life that impacted them all, through carefully realised characters, to the beginning of the decline, just after her father’s retirement.

In one scene Anne is left with her father during their holiday at the beach, her mother and other siblings have gone out. Her father has spent most of the holiday lying on the couch, not at all tempted by the sandy beaches or the sea, but Anne is persistent. Reluctantly he agrees.

I smiled as I watched my Dad haul himself from the sofa. I waited for fifteen minutes before my Dad emerged from his bedroom. He was dressed in his grey suit. The only sign that he was about to take part in a leisure activity and not have a day at work was that he was not wearing a tie and had the top button of his shirt undone.

The challenges have only just begun. Anne wants to sit in the sun, an idea her father rejects, suggesting a secluded spot further back, where the ice cream hut has created the only shade on the beach. Initially he relents to sit in her spot, but refuses to join her in the water, too cold. After her swim, as she lies down to enjoy the warmth of the sun, a shadow looms over her.

‘You shouldn’t sit in the sun too long. You want to turn red like those English people – you shouldn’t sit in the sun’
‘Everybody else’ –
‘Cha’, my dad insisted before I had time to finish. ‘We’re not like everybody else.’

The story turns towards their encounter with the father’s decline and the navigation of the NHS health service, a lack of knowledge, the pain and difficulties encountered as a result, resolved only when the daughter pushes and insists on their behalf. Alternate moments of perseverance and giving up, driven by a need, pushed back by intimidation and shame. Here, Anne offers to visit the Doctor to ask for stronger pain medication.

‘But,’ my mum began, ‘but you can’t just go and see him. He’s a busy man. He might not see you.’ Her voice said ‘go’ and ‘don’t go’ at the same time.

Aspects of the past come to light later on, were they secrets, those things family members never talked about, which end up buried and become secret-like. When an Aunt visits telling them how things are back home in Jamaica and asks about their newfound life in England, the land of opportunity, things not said are loud in their omission. If there was regret, it’s been long-buried, replaced by silence and resignation, not to be discussed.

There are many light and humorous moments, interspersed with the reality of the struggle the family has in fitting in, within a culture where there are expectations about how to do things and underlying racism or indifference toward outsiders. They do their best to integrate, to pass on their stoic values to their children, who only realise as they become adults how difficult it had been for them.

I knew this society better than my parents. My parents’ strategy was to keep as quiet as possible in the hope that no one would know they had sneaked into this country. They wanted to be no bother at all. But I had grown up in its English ways. I could confront it, rail against it, fight it, because it was mine – a birthright.

It was a beautiful beginning to her literary career, a fictional novel that paid tribute to her parent’s and siblings lives, that demonstrates the empathy Levy had for her characters and the pure gift of storytelling that would take her on to deserved critical acclaim. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Click Here to Buy One of Andrea Levy’s Novels via Book Depository (free shipping)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James #ManBookerPrize

Brief HistoryMarlon James novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2015, a year that saw an exceptionally diverse array of novels long listed.

As a reminder, since it was nearly a year ago that this book won the prize, this was what Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, had to say about it:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It is a novel that was hailed as being exceptional in itself, much of it written in that Jamaican patois mentioned, via a litany of voices from the ganglands of the Jamaican ghetto.

I admit that it wasn’t exactly on my reading list, with its promise of violence, killing, drug related activities and dozens of characters, however the book was gifted to me by a visiting Professor, who had little to say about it, but was keen to know my thoughts. So I made it my #OneSummerChunkster and jumped right in, mind wide open.

It is difficult and almost seems inappropriate to rate this novel (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.com) in terms of appeal, as it is an incredibly written and unique work, with a huge amount of research that went into the writing and authenticity of its creation.

Marlon JamesI can’t say I loved it, it was a tough read in places and definitely not the kind of book I would normally choose nor the kind of film/TV series I would watch, but it is an awe-inspiring creation and for that I agree, it is indeed an amazing oeuvre and warrants the 5 stars, though as far as favourite books go or works I’d recommend, I hesitate and would say its not an experience I would choose to repeat often.

I was grateful for the list of characters up front, which I referred to often at the beginning of each chapter, as we are plunged straight into the multi-character narrative with its discordant musical tones, slice of life in the ghetto, the Singer (never referred to by name) not present, though always there in the greater awareness of them all. Life has little meaning and killing a mere rise above assault.

It must have been incredible to listen to the audio version as the individual character voices are so unique, it is the literary equivalent of reading a musical score for a symphony like you’ve never heard before, I am in awe that Marlon James succeeded in creating such a work, that balances so many threads of narrative, so many characters, the timeline, the Jamaican patois, the gangspeak, the violence, the framing of the story around the assassination attempt of that “Singer” who is never named, assumed to be Bob Marley. As Eileen Battersby, reviewer of The Irish Times put it so eloquently:

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

It paints a dark, dangerous picture of ghetto life and the activities, interactions of drug dealers and their crews and the fear by those who are in any way touched or implicated in their actions. In a schizophrenic stream of consciousness narrative, gang members live their days in altered states of consciousness, paranoid, high, wanting to kill – in a frantic, dangerous other worldly horror.

Flicking between the narratives of CIA members, a young woman afraid of what she has witnessed, a journalist, all present leading up to the attempted shooting of the Singer. Surreal. It made me wonder at times if the author was in an altered state of consciousness while writing – it is some kind of trip!

I did have to push myself in parts to keep going, it’s brutal at times, and upon reaching halfway, I took the afternoon off to read The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba.  But then the pace picked up again as Papa-Lo the don, and top members of a rival gang were about to be chucked into jail together in the hope they’d self destruct. James’s lulls never last and we are pulled back into the riveting storyline, following our favourites and steeling ourselves against spending time the company of those we know are going to detest.

Book of Night WomenI was left admiring the creation even if it wasn’t always a particularly enjoyable ride and as my comment made to another reader below shows, the beach was actually a great place to read it!

I feel like I’m reading a Jamaican symphony, a cacophony of words and sounds and emotions, not sure if it was the heat of the sun or the power of the book, but I had to keep putting it down to take a plunge into the cool ocean!

That said, I am intrigued and do intend to read Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women wondering how he handles a story with female characters.

Click Here to Buy A Novel by Marlon James at Book Depository!