The Long Song – Andrea Levy

 Long listed for Orange Prize 2010 

The Long Song is set on Jamaica and follows July, a young slave girl, during the last few years of slavery and after she is granted freedom. 

The book is very different in style to Andrea Levy’s last book, Orange Prize winning Small Island, but I think they are both good in their own way. 

Much of the speech in The Long Song is written in Jamaican dialect, which adds atmosphere to the book. I think this would be even better on audio, as I’m sure my inner mind doesn’t quite do it justice! It isn’t hard to understand the dialect, in fact the whole book is quick and easy to read. I felt that this was actually one of the negatives of the book – it was so light that it seemed to skim over some very important scenes. The plot was quite simple, but the book covered a reasonably large chunk of time. This speed of events meant that I didn’t fully connect with July or understand which emotions she was experiencing. 

The narrator, July, frequently addresses the reader of the book, adding references to her present day life. 

Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and a little ink. 

Having read a few other reviews I’ve discovered that this style seems to annoy some people, but I found it a refreshing change to the similarity of many books. 

Overall, it was a light, entertaining read, but I have heard the amazing way Andrea Levy narrates her books and so I recommend getting the audio version of The Long Song.

Did you enjoy The Long Song?

Do you think it will make it onto the Orange short list tomorrow?

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  1. I’ve heard about this book, but never really knew what it was about. The dialect thing reminds me a little of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston (I really recommend this, by the way) and the fact that she addresses the reader like that reminds me of Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him.”). Anyway, it’s been longlisted for the Orange Prize and you’d recommend it, so I think I will give it a chance. Would you say one should read Small Island first to better connect to Levy’s writing? And I’m not that big on audiobooks, my thoughts are always places, just not with the book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Susi, I don’t think it matters which book you read first – they are both very different. Small Island is very long and is a more conventional novel.

      The Long Song is much shorter and quirkier. I have seen comparisons to Jane Eyre on other reviews. I think that might be where she got the style from, but I’ll be on the look out for author interviews to find out!

      I hope you enjoy which ever one you decide to try!

  2. diane says:

    Jackie, I did like this book (never thought of trying the audio version, but you made a good point). I need to read Small Island now. Thanks 4 sharing your thoughts.

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, I look forward to your thoughts on Small Island -be prepared for a very different book – and a much longer one!

  3. lizzysiddal says:

    Did I enjoy The Long Song? – Once I’d got used to the idea that it wasn’t Small Island, I did.

    Not sure about whether it will be shortlisted – but I’m remarkably uniformed as I’ve only read 3 of the longlist and I really want to see “Hearts and Minds” there.

    Here’s my ideal shortlist (based on what I want to read most):
    Wolf Hall, The Lacuna, The Woman on the Green Bicycle, Hearts and Minds, The Still Point, The Help

    1. Jackie says:

      lizzy, I have Hearts and Minds here, but haven’t read it yet. I’ve read 8 of the long list and think that the short list will look like this:

      Wolf Hall, The Help, Hearts and Minds, This is How, The Rehearsal and A Gate at the Stairs.

      I’m not that confident in my predictions, as I haven’t read them all. I will be interested to see what makes it, as I plan to read any books that I haven’t yet read from the short list.

  4. Shannon says:

    Years ago I picked up Small Island randomly at the library, but never got a chance to finish it. I should go back and get it.

    The Long Song sounds great, I’m going to look for that one. I enjoy reading literature that’s written in Patois, as my husband is Jamaican so I understand it all and can hear it in my head with the right accent as well. Though I assume that while it does use the dialect, it waters it down a bit for non-Jamaican readers?

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, I can see why you might not have finished Small Island – it is so long and does drag a bit in some sections. It is well worth giving it another try though.

      There aren’t many Jamaican words in The Long Song, so noone will have difficulty understanding it – it is more the accent of Jamaicans speaking English. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this one – I wonder if you’ll be annoyed by the way it is watered down?

      1. Shannon says:

        I would have kept reading Small Island, but I had to return it as it had a hold, it did take me a while to read.

        I’ve put Long Song on hold at the library but the copies are still on order. I’ll let you know what I think. I won’t be annoyed by it being watered down. It’s better that way, I’ve read books N. American books that have had Jamaican characters where the patois is too strong and the author obviously wasn’t taking into account their audience. Even if you understand the patois, it can be hard to read since it’s not really a written dialect.

  5. vivienne says:

    It seems so difficult to imagine such a book being very quick to read, but I will definitely take your word for it. I read another one of her books last year and really enjoyed. I hope to get to Small Island soon too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Vivienne, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! I haven’t read any of her earlier books. I have heard some good things about them, so am on the lookout for them. I hope you enjoy Small Island!

  6. Sandy says:

    You are abolsolutely right on…when there is dialect, audio works well. Also, even with light prose, the right narrator can add weight to a story. I may see if I can find this one on audio.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I’d say that audio works best, especially with light prose – it makes the story seem more natural. I find I can’t listen to anything too complex on audio – my mind starts to drift. I hope you find a copy on audio and can let me know if my predictions are right!

  7. Steph says:

    I would really like to read something by Levy, but haven’t had the chance yet. I’m not sure how I would react to the dialect voice, since normally something that bugs me, but I trust that Levy is a skilled enough writer she can make it work. But you raise an interesting point about listening to it on audio – the dialect would probably not bother me then and would probably feel more authentic.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, Andrea Levy is a skilled author and I’m sure it wouldn’t annoy you to read this one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the audio of this though. I hope you enjoy whichever you decide to try!

  8. She says:

    I really enjoyed Small Island, so I’m happy to know she has another good read! What a lovely cover as well.

    1. Jackie says:

      She, The hardback version I have is beautiful. There isn’t a dust jacket, but there is lovely gold and bronze embossing all over the cover – a book that I just loved holding!

  9. I just finished this yesterday and will write up my thoughts on my blog tomorrow as I’m still digesting it – not that it was heavy for me either, just that I’m not very sure what I thought of it and why – enough of being cryptic, I will come to a decision tonight! Thanks for the review, Jackie. So far, I can only comment on the fact that the cover is gorgeous, the prettiest book I own!

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I look forward to reading your review. I know why you are still undecided on this book – there is a lot to love, but a lot that doesn’t quite work. I agree that the cover is fantastic though!

  10. Amy says:

    I have Small Island on my tbr pile but not this one. It sounds like an interesting writing style, I think I will read Small Island first but I may give this one a try at some point.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I hope that you enjoy Small Island. The BBC adaptation is supposed to be really good too – I’m going to see if I can get the DVD soon.

      1. Amy says:

        Good to know, I will have to check for it after reading :)

  11. Louise says:

    I haven’t read any of the longlisted books (that I know of), and not sure I will read this one, although you’ve written a beautiful review of it. Just not sure it appeals to me that much. I enjoy reading books set during that time, and I also enjoy books written with slavery as a focus point, but still, not sure this is my cup of tea.

    1. Jackie says:

      Louise, I know why you’d want to avoid this one. Slavery isn’t really focused on – it is there, but the full horror is skirted round.

  12. some books gain so much from being listened to as audio books and it sounds like this is one of them. i’m a huge fan of audio books and can barely tolerate my commute without one!

    as for narrators communicating with the readers–i love it. i feel personally drawn into the story that way.

    looking forward to reading about the winners soon!

    1. Jackie says:

      nat, I love listening to audio books whenever I’m in the car. I hope that you can find a copy of this and enjoy it on your commute.

  13. Kathleen says:

    I’m not usually an audio book fan but in the case of a book with distinct dialect, I think it might be the way to go.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, Audio books can be very hit and miss. Some books just don’t work in that format. I recommend looking at the audie awards:
      to find some good ones.

  14. Stujallen says:

    i ve two of hers already to read so be a long while til i get to this one ,although i loved her talking about the research into this book she really worked hard to find out how the slaves lives were from little written evidence

    1. Jackie says:

      Stujallen, I love listening to Andrea Levy! I’ll have to see if I can spot her at any of the book festivals this year as she is fascinating. I know what you mean about not wanting to read too many books by the same author in a row. I do the same thing.

  15. Elise says:

    I saw this in the book shop the other day, it certainly looks interesting! Thanks for the review, I am much more inclined to read it now :)

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m pleased that you found my review helpful!

  16. Priscilla says:

    This sounds good, but I’m more intrigued by Small Island. Of course, now we know Levy did not make the short list. As much as I love Lorrie Moore, I am still wondering how Gate at the Stairs made it, while The Little Stranger, which in my very humble opinion was a far better book, did not. Oh well…

    1. Jackie says:

      Priscilla, I haven’t read Gate at the Stairs, but plan to soon. I hope I can see why it made the list. I’m not surprised that The Long Song or The Little Stranger didn’t make the short list, but I am surprised by what did. I was certain The Rehearsal would – thought it might win. I also thought The Help and This is How would make it, as both were very good. I now have five new books to read and look forward to finding out why they beat the ones I expected to win.

  17. Wilson says:

    I’m surprised this amazing book didn’t make to this year’s shortlist. I wonder why?

    1. Just to add that I don’t think I mentioned about the suitability of the audio version on my review, Jackie, but having listened to an excerpt from it read by Andrea Levy I think it really brings out the Jamaican setting, something which didn’t entireley come across when I was reading it.


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