Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Marie Reviews The Long Song- 2010 Shortlist

The Long Song, by Andrea Levy. Published 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I took The Long Song for review a while ago and I knew I'd get to it eventually because it was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and I have to say I was seriously impressed with this multifaceted, engrossing novel.

Set in Jamaica on the cusp of the end of slavery, Andrea Levy tells the story of Miss July, a slave in the household of one Caroline Mortimer, an English widow come to Jamaica. Caroline Mortimer, always referred to by her first and last name, is a comic figure, an emblem of the ridiculous and the absurd. She takes a shine to July, calls her "Marguerite" and makes July her personal servant. Along the way, they get through the Baptist War, see the end of slavery in Jamaica and learn to live with each other in the new era of freedom.

But don't mistake The Long Song for a feel-good novel about relationships between whites and blacks, or one in which the blacks teach the whites some lessons about life. Politics and social realities may change; attitudes change but little. July, whose white Scottish father raped her black Jamaican mother, finds that she is in a peculiar position in the complex racial hierarchy of the island, where how much white blood someone has determines their social standing among blacks and women try to "raise their color" by sleeping with white men. July falls in love with a white man, Robert Goodwin, who appears to be passionately devoted to her. He talks a good game but eventually he shows himself to be no better than July's own father when it comes to his true esteem for her.

I really loved The Long Song. I love how Levy made Caroline Mortimer sympathetic at first, then gradually shifts into satire and absurdity, and I love how she shows the different characters and events with respect for all- or mostly all. I could understand why the characters did what they did, and how their actions seemed right to them even when they seemed very wrong to me. The characters are complex people- there are no cartoon saints and no cartoon villains in this book. The narrator, the elderly July, is funny, irascible and just ever so slightly unreliable, and her voice makes the book the delightful, thoughtful and fascinating wonder that it is. Literary and popular-fiction readers will enjoy this book and I recommend it highly.

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