Women on the Shelf – The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Reviewed by Jean Gibson

Sometimes I find it difficult to choose a book. There seem to be so many out there on the shelves or piled up 3 for 2 in bookshops. However I didn’t have any difficulty  choosing ”The Long Song” by Andrea Levy as the book I want to write about here.

It’s a book I read recently, a fictional book. You could call it a historical novel as it is set against the backdrop of the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom in 19th century Jamaica. However most importantly, for me, “The Long Song” is a story of a life.

This book hadn’t been my first choice when searching for something different to read in the first week of January this year. Standing in my local bookshop I’d been tempted by a shiny hardback biography of The Queen Mother, being sold half price. I’ve never been a fan of royalty. Maybe my interest was due to all the recent rave reviews of the film “The Kings Speech” featuring the actress Helena Bonham Carter as the queen mother. Or perhaps it was because I’d been disappointed in the last few novels I’d read that I found myself drawn to this biography. Whatever the reason something held me back from choosing it. Certainly a touch of snobbery about the political correctness of reading a book about royalty. Yet, it was also a feeling that I’d heard the story before and wouldn’t discover anything new. I turned to
the Fiction section instead.

The picture on the front cover of “The Long Song” interested me. A picture of a young black woman standing in a bright yellow field and looking over her shoulder, half smiling. Although I was slightly worried that a book about slavery would be too heavy or depressing ,something about that picture made me open the book and read from the Foreword.

“The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story – a story that lay so far within her breast that she felt impelled by some force that was mightier than her own will to relay this tale to me, her son…”

These opening words persuaded me to choose the book I was indeed holding in my hand.

The narrator of the story is an old woman called July who is writing a book about her life. She tells her story in a direct, feisty and often humorous voice that reveals her as a person with flaws and prejudices but also with great strengths and hopes. A very determined character with aspirations of a better future despite the appalling confines and stark injustices of the world she inhabits. She also reveals the other people in her world. The black plantation workers, the white plantation owners, the missionaries and abolitionists. Through her earthy and unapologetic narrative we see the multi layered nature of the racism of that society and the harsh consequences for July and those closest to her. However despite the harshness of her life July’s defiance and humor make her story an uplifting one.

“The Long Song” is, for me, a soul touching book. This reclaimed story of an ordinary anonymous woman , enslaved in history and deemed unimportant, highlights the extraordinary potential of the human spirit to survive with self worth and dignity. The story reminded me of the power of fiction to speak important truths. Important truths from the past and important truths in the present. It also made me think, with excitement, of all the other stories out there waiting to
be read or written. It rekindled my passion for fiction as the creative carrier of all the stories that would never make it onto the Biography shelves.

Finally and perhaps most essentially it reminded me of the importance, in our present celebrity obsessed culture, of the oh so many ordinary people out there and their extraordinary strengths, talents and achievements, often unsung, but equally worthy of celebration. That was an important reminder.

I like biographies and may well get around to reading the official biography of the Queen Mother. For now I’m very glad that I chose the “Long Song” by Andrea Levy, for all the above reasons but also because it was the right book at the right time and you can’t ask more of a book than that.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO BUY FROM AMAZON

Amazon Review:
‘The Long Song is is told with irresistible cunning; it is captivating, mischievious and optimistic, generating new stories and plot lines throughout the tale’
(Daily Telegraph )
‘Levy has a rare ability to channel the maelstrom of history into the most intimate of human dramas’
(New Statesman )
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize.

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