“It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: ‘Oh, Hortense, when I am older…’ all her dreaming began with ‘when I am older’ ‘…when I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England.’ This is when her voice became high-class and her nose point in the air — well, as far as her round flat nose could — and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s eye.”
That’s how Andrea Levy’s marvelous and beguiling “Small Island” began.
“Too thoughtful a novel to promise its characters a happy ending, but it is generous enough to offer them hope,” The New York Times said in their review
Unfortunately, there’s a history of authors following-up their prize-winning efforts with disappointing outings.
“Levy has grown as a writer: her use of language and imagery have become more accomplished than her earlier offerings,” wrote The Independent. “The Long Song is simultaneously the life-affirming story of one woman’s battle to survive in terrible circumstances, and a tribute to the legions of slaves who did more than suffer and die, but also managed to squeeze all they possibly could out of the bleakest of circumstances.”
So very true.
Levy, who has made her reputation writing beautiful, affecting novels dealing with the Black experience in England, the first person to really do so, has written another really wonderful book.
This historic novel, set mostly in the Jamaica — where Levy’s father is from and which figures in each of her novels — of the early 1830s when slavery came to an end, is more than simple look back. Levy seems to give you a sense of life as lived and does so with exacting detail and, most importantly, a sense of humor.
It purports to be the story of Miss July, a former slave convinced to write her story toward the end of the 19th Century by her son who is a printer. In addition to an introduction and afterword that he has “written” — there are notes from him throughout the book.
On her website, Levy talks about writing the book.
“The last thing I wanted to do was write a novel about slavery in Jamaica,” she writes. “Yet writing about the experience of slavery was a natural progression for me. Small Island, my last novel was the story of Jamaican immigrants to England in the early years after World War Two. Before that I had written three other novels that dealt in some way or another with the experience of black people in Britain. How could I not write about where and why the relationship with the Jamaica and the Caribbean began? It made sense. I had to do it.”
And she started researching and the more she learned, the more she discovered that over the hundreds of years of slavery in Jamaica, a “massive social system — a society in the true sense” — had developed and endured…people were suffering and dying. But clearly people were living and surviving as well.
“The Long Song is my tribute to them and, I hope, an inspirational story not only for their descendants, but for us all.”
She has succeeded.
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