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Book 135: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Book 135: The Long Song.
Author: Andrea Levy, 2010.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 19th Century Jamaica.
Other Details: Hardback, 336 pages, and unabridged audio read by the author. Duration: 11 hour and 20 min.

You do not know me yet.  My son Thomas, who is publishing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages.  As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.’ - Miss July, The Long Song.

Through this engaging voice, Andrea Levy weaves together strands of tragedy and sorrow, of love, hope and humour. This final aspect may seem out of place in a novel dealing with such a serious topic but that it does is a testimony to Levy's skill as a story-teller and her sensitivity to the subject. Although grounded in historical sources, Levy did not seek to write an epic chronicle of the period; rather she has created a novel that feels quite intimate: one voice, one story among the many that could be told.

Levy manages to capture the day-to-day lives and the humanity of all parties and to convey, without too much exposition, the economics and culture of slavery that had been of part of Jamaican society for almost 300 years. Levy includes a poignant scene, based on historical fact, as a group made up of former slaves, a local minister and other sympathisers hold a mock funeral to bury a coffin filled with shackles and chains and the sign 'Colonial slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276 years.'

Miss July often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader and sometimes is very playful with events in the narrative. This makes her technically an unreliable narrator, though she gives fair warning of this in the novel's opening pages. The language of the book is simple and beautiful, drawing on the cadences of Jamaican patois yet remaining accessible both on the written page and to the ear. While I read the book first, I also had the opportunity to then listen to its audiobook, read by Andrea Levy. She has an extremely rich voice and did a superb job of bringing her narrator to life.

Given all the above praise, it hardly needs to be said that I loved this book from first page to last as I fell under the beguiling spell of Miss July. It has also been very well received by critics and readers in the UK. The novel was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize and has been chosen as one of the books for the UK's Channel 4 TV Book Club in January 2011. In addition, it will be the January selection for The Guardian Book Club .

Andrea Levy's website - has her essay on the writing of the novel and link to excerpt.
Tags: audio book, british, family saga, historical fiction, race, richard and judy/channel 4 book club, sexual violence
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