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Book Review: The Long Song

By Rach ~ Friday, 11 November 2011

From the very start, The Long Song by Andrea Levy makes you more acutely aware than usual of the physical book you are reading.

The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving

Opening sentence from The Long Song, Foreword

The foreword plays with your expectations of a foreword, which is usually expected to be outside of the world of the fiction, and tends to be a factual piece of writing written, crucially, by a real person other than the main author of the work. In The Long Song, the writer of the foreword is the fictional son and publisher of the fictional main narrator, July. The effect is twofold; a gradual awakening of understanding in the reader that we are already in the world of the fiction and seemingly conversely, that the fiction of the novel is framed as fact.

Even the ‘blurb’ on the back of the book brings the world of the fiction onto the outside of the book:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work. My son Thomes, who is printing 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 page. 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.

Introductory blurb on the back cover of The Long Song

The fact that the physical process of editing and publishing is brought into the fiction through the character of the son, as well as repeated references throughout the book to the physical act of writing, the “superfine white wove” paper, the troublesome dripping ink, “See then how your soiled hand prints smudges all across the paper”, brings the book itself almost as a character into the fiction. The son’s intention is to print “A chapbook”:

Upon its cover there could be the ornamentation of a sturdy woodcut—a horse or cart or bundled sugar cane (for I know a man who can render these with such skill as to trick your eye into believing you were gazing upon the true item).

The Long Song, page 2

The hardback cover we have is certainly close enough to a woodcut to further this fact/fiction dialogue, though just as the work ends up being much more than a “simple pamphlet”, so too the woodcut on the actual book is embossed and golden. (The play between fact and fiction is also wryly hinted at in “trick your eye into believing you were gazing upon the true item”.) The title of the book in itself seems to play with the solidity of the book, the point being that this is not just a song, in danger of being forgotten, however ‘long’ and retold, but a lasting written document.

...there are very few surviving documents and artefacts that I could find where black slaves speak of and for themselves

Andrea Levy in The Writing of The Long Song

Levy is emphasising the physical elements of the writing of this book because, in her words, “Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out”. The physicality of the book is trying to put back the missing written documents from the time, regardless of its fictional nature. As an historical novellist, Levy is “treading where academics cannot go because of the rigour of their discipline”:

I was trying to breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events. And that requires imagination as well as research.

Andrea Levy in The Writing of The Long Song

In this book, fiction breathes life into fact, just as the fiction itself breathes life into the fact of the physical book, bringing the book into the novel and equally the fiction of the novel out into the fact of the physical world.