Postal Reading group
June 2019
Notes on the book The long song by Andrea Levy

This is the second time I’ve had to read Andrea Levy’s The long song for a reading group. I didn’t enjoy it on the first occasion, and I didn’t find it any easier to read at a second attempt either. I think that this puts me very much in the minority, especially with a book which otherwise seems to have attracted consistently good reviews.

From the beginning, this seemed like a difficult book, and the narrative was particularly long winded. Of course, I might expect the style of the writing to be unusual, in an effort to convey something of the narrator’s background, but such ornate and lengthy writing would appear to be an unusual choice. Did even the plantation owners speak like that? If so, then perhaps its not surprising that the poor slaves often misunderstood. Also, the frequent switches between the reliable and unreliable narrator only serve to confuse me. Even in the first chapter, the reader is presented with two versions of July’s birth, one in the cane field, and another in her mothers ‘dwelling hut’. After a while it becomes difficult to know which version to believe.

All too often, books about slavery seem to adopt a moralising tone, as if the author holds the reader personally responsible for the horrors of the past. To be fair, this is not the case here, but some parts of the story are inevitably harrowing enough, and I find that there is little to keep the reader’s interest through such episodes. The reader is promised humour, but sadly I didn’t see much of this, unless July’s mischievous style of narration counts.

Much of the story would seem to rely on the reader maintaining an interest in the characters, or more specifically in July. Sadly, I didn’t find her to be particularly interesting. Of course, I’m sorry she was a slave, but feeling sorry for them does not automatically make them interesting. Of course, if the narrative had been easier to follow, it may have been easier to appreciate July as a character, but it is also possible that the whole story would have read more like a history book. This is one of the difficulties of writing good historical fiction, and one of the reasons why the author has not succeeded in this case.

Beyond this, many of the people in the book appear to be mere caricatures, such as, for example the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer. Obviously, you don’t necessarily expect the owners, their family, and the overseer to be likeable people, but these seem to be so lifeless that it almost obscures the horrors of slavery. Perhaps that’s the only way they can live with their own appalling actions.

Also, the plot is complicated part way through by the introduction of too many characters, each of which fulfil relatively minor roles. Similarly, the first and relatively simple part of the story is told in great depth, while the second much more complex part is rushed through. Even now, after the second reading, I’m not sure that I really understood this book, indeed, given the positive reviews which it usually attracts, I can only suppose that I haven’t.

In summary, I found the plot hard to follow, which is further compounded by the long-winded style of narration. None of the characters seem particularly likeable, while I found even the central character to be difficult to engage with. While I suppose that I must be missing something, and therefore my criticism shouldn’t be taken too seriously, it is nevertheless a pity that I should have to leave such a negative review of a book which many others have enjoyed.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler