2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

Pao by Kerry Young


Shortlisted for 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
Shortlisted for 2011 Costa Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Jamaica, Chinatown, business, political, transforming

Pao is only fourteen-year-old when he arrives in Jamaica in 1938; fleeing the violence of the Chinese revolution. He finds a home with his mother and brother in Chinatown and they try to adjust to life in a country that is very different from their own.

I immediately fell in love with Pao and his numerous money making schemes. His transformation from innocent child to powerful man was engaging to read, but as he grew up and his crimes became more serious I found that I was slowly distancing myself from him and by the end of the book I didn’t like him at all. This could be seen as a negative, but it is rare for characters to undergo such a developmental arc and I actually found this transformation impressive.

The book does a fantastic job of explaining the history of Jamaica. Details of the violence and unrest are sprinkled through the text, giving the reader a good understanding of how the country gained its independence from the British.

So what with all him bicycle talk I never get a chance to tell Zhang ’bout the commotion, and how the dockworkers bring the whole of the downtown to a standstill. But it no matter. Next day it all over town ’bout how Alexander Bustamante get arrested because they think he the one leading the strike, and how the English government probably going to send a commissioner to look into the disturbances, that is how they say it, even though nobody can see no point in that because everybody already know what the trouble is – no work, no food, and no hope that anything going get better.

The Jamaican dialogue took a little bit of time to get used to, but once I adjusted it gave the book a fantastic atmosphere. I think this is one of those books that would benefit from an audio version as I’m sure it would come across better if narrated by a native speaker instead of the voice inside my head!

The main problem with the narrative was that as the book progressed increasingly large periods of time were skipped – this gave the book a disjointed feel. Sometimes characters were returned to after a long absence and I felt as though I no longer knew who they were and this meant I didn’t care about them.

I also felt that the story was a bit dull. So much seemed to be going on around the periphery, but the central story lacked that magical spark.

This book did a lot to explain a period of history that I knew little about and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for fiction set in Jamaica.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …an extremely interesting novel, perfect for summer reading. A Reading Odyssey

….the way it is written was very distracting, and eventually weakens the story itself. Jules’ Book Reviews

 Pao is an utterly beguiling, unforgettable novel of race, class and creed, love and ambition, and a country in the throes of tumultuous change. Book Dilettante

2010 Historical Fiction Orange Prize

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?

2000 - 2007 Chunkster Historical Fiction Orange Prize Other Prizes

Small Island – Andrea Levy


Winner of the 2004 Orange Prize, Winner of 2004 Whitbread Prize (now Costa)

Small Island is a book I have been meaning to read for a very long time, but for some reason it never really grabbed my attention and kept sinking down the TBR pile. In an effort to prevent it from becoming lost forever under stacks of books I made a conscious decision to read it, but it still took me three months to finally start!

Small Island follows the first wave of Caribbean immigrants as they move from Jamaica to the UK. The book centres on four characters: Jamaican newly-weds, Gilbert and Hortense; and English couple, Queenie and Bernard. Bernard has failed to return from WWII and so Queenie lets rooms in her house to the Jamaican couple. We discover their complex relationships as well as their individual feelings as they cope with the effects of war and moving to a new country. The plot travels forwards and backwards in time, describing their lives before, during and after the war, but the main theme of the book is the racism encountered in both countries.

The pace of the book was gentle and I’d describe it as charming rather than the more intense book I was expecting. The plot held my attention, but although I was entertained all the way through I didn’t encounter anything that really bowled me over.

The narratives of the women were well done, but I found the male characters to be less convincing and almost boring in places. Bernard’s section was the weakest and I question its inclusion in the book.

I also found the book lacked vivid descriptions – I couldn’t picture the Jamaican scenes and I’d have had no idea where in the world they were if I hadn’t been told. These are minor quibbles really – a 560 page book has to be very good to provide an interesting plot throughout.

Recommended to the few people that haven’t already read it!

I have reserved a copy of The Long Song from the library and will be interested to see if it is good enough to win this year’s Orange prize.

Have you read Small Island?

Which is the best Andrea Levy book you have read?