Andrea Levy, The Long Song (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 312 pages, ISBN 978-0755359417 (paper).
In her explanatory essay, “The writing of The Long Song,” Andrea Levy describes her fifth novel as an attempt to “breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events.”  The Long Song relegates documented History to the margins of personal experience, reminding readers throughout that history is not only “made,” but lived. Fixing her gaze on 19th century Jamaica, Levy crafts her historical novel as the tale of a formerly enslaved woman with a story “that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will” to pass it on to her descendants (3). Though the narrative contains elements of what Levy terms the “morality play” of slavery—rapacious masters, self-important quadroons and brutal overseers all make their requisite appearances—it does not attempt to explain slavery’s existence and eventual collapse. Instead, The Long Song seeks to recover the “chatter and clatter of people building their lives, families and communities, ducking, diving and conducting the businesses of life in appallingly difficult circumstances.”  Where Levy falters is in belaboring History’s fallibility. A few examples: a suicide is documented as murder, the lush background in a portrait renders invisible the blacks in its midst and an essay published in a Baptist magazine proves to be exaggerated for the sake of humor and self-aggrandizement. (more…)