Sunday, March 7, 2010

Long Song Is Not Long Enough

Flower, do you know that Andrea Levy's novel Small Island has been dramatized for Masterpiece Theater? It will be on, check your local listings, in April. How great is that? Did you further know that not only did Small Island win the Orange Prize but it was also the book voted the best book to ever win the Orange Prize. The old Double Whammy.

Levy's new book is Long Song. It's out already out in the UK--where my copy came from via friend Simon--and it's due out here in April. I am predicting that it will outsell Small Island and why shouldn't it? It's an even better book. This is Levy's fourth novel and with each one her writing gets more powerful and more assured. Her imagery is stronger and her plots tighter.

According to the foreword Long Song is the story of the Mother of the book's editor. That touch of fiction creates a faux authenticity to the novel that works perfectly. Long Song is set in early nineteenth century Jamaica in the years just before and after slavery was abolished. July is a slave on the sugar cane plantation, Amity. She was born to work herself to an early grave in the sugar fields, one of anonymous hundreds of thousands doomed to the same fate. That fate is thwarted by the plantation owner's deceptively dizzy sister, Caroline. She is given July and makes her a part of the upper crust of slavery, a house slave. This promotion does not mean that July is no longer in a brutal and merciless environment with no hope of escape. She is treated how ever the whims of her owners dictate. One day she's a pet the next day she's a victim but she is always human and far from a saint When Caroline marries a charismatic English abolitionist long on looks and short on ideals the dynamic between July and Caroline becomes even more interesting.

Levy is traveling on well worn ground with a slavery story. There are gargantuan shoes to fill or at least get measured up against. There is Beloved, Roots, Gone With The Wind, Jubilee and Sacred Hunger to name just a few. More often novels about slavery are salacious, exploitative cheese fests.  Long Song has the commanding literary power of the best slavery fiction but it also has Levy's humor. She is able (especially in July's scenes with her son the "editor" of this book) to give her characters a sense of humor without trivializing their experiences or minimizing the relationships between slave and master. In fact the moments of life affirming levity underscore the sufferings of the slaves.

Long Song could not be more impressive. The daily life, the blight of slavery, the caprice and cruelty of the slave owners, the tiny seconds of happiness, the Baptist War and the incredibly solid characterizations-- everything is pitch perfect. Andrea Levy will be short listed for everything this year and have the grattitude of any reader who steps into her remarkable novel.


P.S. The cover of the UK edition of Long Song is very similar to the US edition. The both have an Art Nouveau feel to them that is attracktive, but doesn't tie into the time period of the novel. The UK edition was released jacket-less which I like.a great deal.

And! Don't forget that Small Island is available now and Long Song will be available in April and you can get both at your local and serving the community independent bookstore.

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