Summary and book reviews of The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song

A Novel

By Andrea Levy

The Long Song
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2010,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

Small Island introduced Andrea Levy to America and was acclaimed as “a triumph” (San Francisco Chronicle). It won both the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. With The Long Song, Levy once again reinvents the historical novel.

Told in the irresistibly willful and intimate voice of Miss July, with some editorial assistance from her son, Thomas, The Long Song is at once defiant, funny, and shocking. The child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation, July lives with her mother until Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.”

Resourceful and mischievous, July soon becomes indispensable to her mistress. Together they live through the bloody Baptist war, followed by the violent and chaotic end of slavery. Taught to read and write so that she can help her mistress run the business, July remains bound to the plantation despite her “freedom.” It is the arrival of a young English overseer, Robert Goodwin, that will dramatically change life in the great house for both July and her mistress. Prompted and provoked by her son’s persistent questioning, July’s resilience and heartbreak are gradually revealed in this extraordinarily powerful story of slavery, revolution, freedom, and love.

CHAPTER 1

IT WAS FINISHED ALMOST as soon as it began. Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. Except upon this occasion, when he finally released himself from out of her, he thrust a crumpled bolt of yellow and black cloth into Kitty’s hand as a gift. This was more vexing to her than that rude act—for she was left to puzzle upon whether she should be grateful to this white man for this limp offering or not . . .

Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The new novel from the Orange Prize-winning author of Small Island tells the story of an unforgettable heroine during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom following the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831.

With The Long Song, Levy once again reinvents the historical novel. Told in the irresistibly willful and intimate voice of Miss July, with some editorial assistance from her son, Thomas, The Long Song is at once defiant, funny, and shocking. The child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation, July lives with her mother until Mrs Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.”

...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

.... Best of all though is the story itself. As Miss July bears two children of her own, loses them, and navigates the fine lines of mulatto, quadroon and full negro blood, I became immersed in her life. This is the first book I have read in a while that balances misery and loss with a fairly happy ending. The Long Song is recommended as the best sort of historical fiction and a fine pick for reading groups. I can imagine lively discussions over rum punch and fried plantains.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

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Media Reviews
The Times (UK)

Yet the book’s language falls short of its admirable ambitions. ... The result is stylised and often artificial. It’s difficult to sustain an antique narrative mode while keeping it plausible. Levy relies too often on making July suck her teeth and say 'Cha!'

The Telegraph (UK)

Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy’s writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them. ... Levy’s aim, she says, was to write a book that instilled pride in anyone with slave ancestors and The Long Song, though 'its load may prove to be unsettling', is surely that book.

The Guardian (UK)

Slavery is a subject that has inspired some magnificent fiction, but I had some misgivings: might it not, in this case, make for over-serious writing, especially for a novelist as comically inclined as Levy? But she dares to write about her subject in an entertaining way without ever trivialising it and The Long Song reads with the sort of ebullient effortlessness that can only be won by hard work.

The Independent (UK)

It is a well-researched book that wears its scholarship lightly. ... In this world where cultivation and domesticity existed side by side, oppression and intimacy were enmeshed. The two enemies – masters and slaves – lived tightly entwined lives. Levy illustrates this with subtlety in what is an immensely readable and well-paced book.

The Financial Times

As well as providing a history of post-abolition Jamaica, The Long Song is beautifully written, intricately plotted, humorous and earthy. In patois-inflected prose, Levy conjures the greed and licentiousness of the island’s sugar impresarios and heiresses as they indulge vast meals and sexual gropings—before casting Jamaica aside like a sucked orange.

Daily Mirror (UK)

Levy has articulated the black British experience like no other . . . What a voice.

Booklist

Charming, alarming, Levy’s vibrant historical novel shimmers with all the artifice and chicanery slave owners felt compelled to exert.

Publishers Weekly

Slavery destroys the humanity of everyone is Levy's subtext, while the cliffhanger ending suggests (one hopes) a sequel.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An elegant allegory of storytelling . . . A subtly observed, beautifully written, structurally complex novel—an impressive follow-up to Small Island.

Library Journal - Susanne Wells

Starred Review. Her fifth novel is a stunning portrait of slavery and resilience that will stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

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Metafiction & Unreliable Narrators

What is Metafiction?
It depends on whom you ask, as the term is somewhat slippery, meaning that various authors and literary critics define it differently. William H. Gass coined the term in 1970 in an essay entitled "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Commenting on American fiction of the 1960s, Gass pointed out that a new term was needed for the emerging genre of experimental texts that openly broke with the tradition of literary realism still dominant in post-WW II American literature. Metafiction is thus an elastic concept covering a wide range of fictions.

John Barth (Lost in the Funhouse), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), A. S. Byatt (Possession) and Salman Rushdie (...

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