Review: The Long Song, Andrea Levy

At last I have read something by Andrea Levy! I have been meaning to do so for many moons now, and when my book club decided to go with Angela Carter instead of Andrea Levy for next month, I trotted round to the library and got The Long Song. I wanted Small Island but it turned out I couldn’t be bothered climbing all the way up the stairs to the second floor where they keep the non-new fiction. (I know Long Song came out in 2010. Don’t ask me to explain the new/not new classification system of the New York Public Library.)

The Long Song is the story of a slave girl named July, the daughter of a slave on a Jamaican plantation and the plantation’s overseer. Taken from her mother, she becomes a house slave, serving as lady’s maid to the foolish, self-centered, and easily led Caroline Mortimer. July’s life, lasting through the Baptist War in 1831 and the (nominal) emancipation of the Jamaican slaves, is framed as a story written by the mother of a printer, Thomas Kinsman, with occasional editorial asides from Thomas Kinsman to clarify matters and make pointed remarks about his mother’s reliability.

What was very good indeed: (and I loved this) The complex depiction of racism and prejudice throughout the book. We see all different varieties of racism, from the open hatred and contempt of the overseer, to the weak-willed giving in to racism of many of the other white characters, to the pride July takes in being mulatto, rather than black. I also loved the way Levy portrayed the intense cognitive dissonance that was created for many of the characters by their situations, and the extreme ways in which they resolved it. Caroline Mortimer, for instance, causes something pretty horrible to happen midway through the book, and she deals with it by pretending that something totally different happened; this parallels July’s need to paint a happier, or at least a tidier, picture of the events of her life.

The unreliability of July as a narrator was enjoyable, as it emphasized the back and forth between the casual, slangy, careless way the character July speaks, and the very Victorian speech patterns of the narrator (whom we know to be a much older July). There were times when the narrator would tell the story one way, then pause to say that, okay, that’s not really what happened, my son wants me to tell the truth, so this is what really happened. I loved that, particularly as employed at the very end of the book, but I thought Levy could have made better use of it. I have told y’all before that I like an unreliable narrator, but what I like about an unreliable narrator is reaching the end of the book and not being sure what to believe. When July was being unreliable, it was usually made clear and corrected.

In spite of these excellent aspects, I had a hard time connecting with the characters and thus loving the book. I felt like I was at arm’s length the entire time, and I couldn’t exactly discern why that should be the case. I might have been doing it myself, self-protecting because I find books about slavery so viscerally upsetting. Or it might have been Andrea Levy’s choice of narrator, and the way that July very rarely gives the reader a glimpse of her most deeply-held emotions. As a trend, I like characters to the exact extent that they want something I can sympathize with.

Other reviews are many.

Review: The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky

It turns out that a TBR shelf was the best idea I ever had. I’ve made the top section of my little bookshelf into a priority-reads shelf. Now when I am wondering what to read, and I think longingly of library books, my TBR shelf is like a stern little taskmaster going “Oh no you don’t, missy. You have all these books right here in your own very room.” And then I read those books instead, and honestly? I bought or asked for most of those books myself. There is no reason to suppose that I will like them any less than the books I would have gotten at the library.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is the first of a number of books I received for review at various points in the year, and now am going to review over the next week or two. I have this TBR shelf and it has made me into a responsible book blogger who reads the books she receives for review. (Not promptly, I can’t say I always do it promptly, but from now on, I’m going to bring it with the promptness.)

Anyway, this is Alina Bronsky’s second novel published with Europa. It is about Rosalinda Achmetowna, a Tartar woman of exceptional beauty, intelligence, and organizational skills (or so she says), whose ugly daughter Sulfia finds herself pregnant. Though Rosa tries several times to induce an abortion, Sulfia has the baby, a beautiful little girl whom Rosa names Aminat and on whom she utterly dotes. She knows what is best for Aminat. For Sulfia as well. And for her husband. And for everyone, ever.

I was getting a hell of a kick out of Rosa for about the first half of this book. She’s so utterly convinced of her rightness in every situation, what’s best for her husband, what restrictions will make Aminat into a poised, well-behaved little girl, what sneaky little manipulations will obtain a husband for Sulfia. It is funny. I have a soft spot for characters who think they know best. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this is attributable to a character trait in me by which I always think I know best.

But then Rosa did something — and it wasn’t the something you might think — that made me stop liking her permanently. I am often surprised by the things that turn out to be moral event horizons for me, like that time I gave up on Snape forever for making fun of Hermione’s teeth (look, I don’t know why that was the thing for me), and I was surprised about this. I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you what Rosa did that put me off her. It’s really very funny, if you are a fan of exceptionally black humor, and it’s also quite sad. I would have liked to see a few more cracks in the facade of Rosa’s virtue, but mostly I was contented with the unreliableness of this narrator.

Here’s the warning on the label: If you are like my Mumsy and you are unduly bothered by mistreatment of children, this book maybe isn’t for you. Just for your information.

Other reviews:

Fizzy Thoughts
Leafing Through Life
The Boston Bibliophile
Largehearted Boy
JenandthePen
Indie Reader Houston
Conversational Reading

Tell me if I missed yours!