The long song of Andrea Levy

A sugar plantation in 19th-century Jamaica is the scene of the novelist’s ambitious new book. She talked about it with David Katz

  • book covers
  • Andrea Levy. Photograph courtesy Laurie Fletcher

On the other end of a crackling telephone line, Andrea Levy gives a short chortle as she considers the arbitrary beginning of her writing career. “It started almost by accident, with an evening class,” she says, with a slight hint of continued amazement. “I could have done yoga or painting, but I decided to do creative writing, and I just loved it. I also thought that I had something I wanted to say, something that I wanted to explore, using writing. But if you’d said to me when I was in my twenties that I would end up as a writer in my fifties, I would have thought you were insane.”

Levy is in the midst of a whirlwind tour, promoting her latest novel, The Long Song, which has already taken her halfway around the world. In the 1990s, a trio of semi-autobiographical novels established her reputation as a chronicler of the black British experience, but despite being well received by British literary critics, they failed to spark much interest overseas. Six years ago, she finally achieved star status with Small Island, an historical opus focusing on a Jamaican airman, Gilbert Joseph, who settles in Britain with his wife Hortense at the end of World War II, when their lives inadvertently become entwined with that of Queenie Bligh, the Englishwoman who temporarily houses them. This portrait of the complexities facing the Windrush generation made Levy the first writer to win the Whitbread Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in the same year.
Yet Levy claims she did not even read a book until she was 23, having grown up poor in a north London council flat, the child of immigrants who seldom spoke of the lives and the family they left behind in Jamaica. “I think that the Caribbean is a place of deep secrets,” Levy suggests, “and if you’re trying to live your life as a ‘respectable’ person, those secrets can come back to haunt you. So I think that talking about family is very difficult.”

Her writing has given her the space to delve into these hidden territories, evoking the unspoken elements that hung heavy in the household of her childhood. In her debut novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, the protagonist, Angela Jacob, tries to make sense of her formative experiences, as her immigrant father becomes seriously ill. Her second book, Never Far From Nowhere, concerned two sisters, raised on a north London council estate by recent arrivals from Jamaica: the older, darker Olive winds up pregnant and isolated by the end of her teens, while the younger, lighter Vivien finds it far easier to integrate with her peer group. Parental bafflement is an extra hindrance, and the drop in status the family experiences in Britain renders their mother unable to help her daughters navigate their limited life choices.

Levy’s third novel, Fruit of the Lemon, was something of a departure in that half the book was set in Jamaica. Protagonist Faith Jackson travels to Kingston to stay with an unknown aunt after suffering a personal crisis. The experience allows her to directly connect with her lineage and re-emerge with a better sense of self. Levy says the book was partly inspired by her own maiden trip to Jamaica, in 1989. “Staying with my aunt was an incredible experience,” she stresses, “realising that I had this heritage that was long and rich.”

It was while writing Fruit of the Lemon that an unlikely catalyst propelled her towards Small Island, which was markedly different from the works that preceded it, owing to its historical setting. “Halfway through Fruit of the Lemon I judged the Orange Prize for Fiction,” she explains, “and I had to read 70 books in three months, back to back. So it was the biggest education I’d ever had in literature, and that just opened it for me, where I wanted to be more ambitious.”
The Long Song, set during the 19th century, is even more elaborate. The narrator, a former slave named July, recounts the story of her life on a Jamaican plantation during slavery’s waning phase. Levy says she had been reluctant to tackle a book about slavery, but was compelled to do so by a chance encounter at a public event. “With Small Island, I was looking at my parents’ generation and their immigration to Britain, and then I wanted to go further into this relationship between Britain and the Caribbean, and of course you come into slavery, and I didn’t want to write a book on slavery, because I thought it would be a very difficult thing to do personally, and it’s a difficult subject to write about.

“But then I was at a conference on the legacy of slavery, where a young black woman got up and asked how could she be proud of her ancestry when her family had been slaves. She seemed to be ashamed of this, and I thought what a great shame that was, and I wanted then to tell her a story that would change her mind. So it made me want to tell that story, as opposed to being quite nervous about it.’

The tale Levy has conjured in The Long Song is easily her most complex to date. The plot has many unexpected twists and turns, and although she has incorporated historical events, such as the Christmas Rebellion of 1831, her heroine’s voice speaks in opposition to the racist stance of some standard historical works. July’s narrative allows the slaves to reclaim their humanity.
As in all her work, Levy achieves a great deal through a judicious use of humour, which is all the more surprising here, given the grave subject matter.

“I have to say it’s my personality. I truly believe that humour is very much a factor of everyday life, and when you start to write a book, people want you to decide whether you’re writing a funny book or a serious book. Somehow, the notion that you can put them together is weird, but when you actually look at how life works, there’s always humour – it’s part and parcel of the human condition.

“So for me to write a story about slavery, where I’m trying to really get hold of the humanity of the person, not to give them humour would be ridiculous.”

In exploring the intricacies of plantation life, the book naturally brings up much that is relevant for the present-day inhabitants of the Caribbean, as well as for their overseas relations, especially in terms of race, gender, and family. “The Long Song is trying to capture something of what happened at that particular time to the people in the Caribbean, and one of the aspects is the fractured family, and the idea of family being quite complicated. And I wanted to say that the complexity of ideas about colour and race that existed in the Caribbean at that time isn’t as simple as black and white.” Enslaved people had taken on the idea that to be white was the best thing to be, and that affected not only the white people, but black ones as well.

One of the most striking aspects of The Long Song is the way the protagonist breaks up her tale with direct asides to the reader, weaving in peculiar diversions, some of which are later revealed as falsehoods. Levy says this form developed organically.

“I started the book as a straight narrative, in the third person, and whenever I write in the third person, I always think, who’s speaking? Who’s telling me this story? So I decided to have a very present narrator, and I enjoyed the idea of somebody commenting on the story that she’s telling and who is a real storyteller, rather than a writer. So that’s how that idea came. Books like Tristram Shandy or Moby Dick have different sorts of narration going on, and I just wanted to explore that.”
Although The Long Song has only been out for a few months, at the end of our conversation, I ask whether Levy is already working on another book, but she refuses to be drawn.

“I have to have a story to tell, as I’m not the sort of writer who just writes for the sake of it. Maybe there isn’t a writer who just writes for the sake of it, but I have written the books I have written because I wanted to tell those stories. And now I’m looking for the next story that I want to tell.”

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