Sunday, 18 March 2012

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Thank goodness for Andrea Levy!

I knew when I read The Help that there was something subtly wrong with it. Essentially its politics were good, its characters were interesting and readable, and the ending a happy one for most concerned. Big ticks all round.

So what was wrong with it? Nothing so simple as the fact that it was written by a white woman — after all, no one can help the colour of their skin, right?

No, it was that The Help is enslaved to the narrative of slavery, while The Long Song is emancipated from it. This seems to me the task of fiction — to free itself from the facts, in order to imagine the lives that might have fleshed out those facts. Not properly, but improperly.

It will be argued that The Help does this fleshing out in spades, and so it does. And it's not about your actual slavery on Jamaica, but about racial integration in the deep South of the United States.

Yet it misses out one key ingredient. Uneasiness.

The Help
makes us feel safe and cosy. It is impossible to disagree with the picture of racism it paints, and possible at all times to know right from wrong, to know where you should stand. Our duty as right-thinking readers is clear, and we are exonerated from complicity in the events the writer portrays because of this moral certitude. All the thinking is done for us, served up with the help of the author.

Andrea Levy remembers in The Long Song, however, that no one knows how things will turn out, until they have. All lives are uneasy, whether they are eased by money and power or not, poised as they are between good fortune and a disastrous turn of the wheel.

Levy also reminds us that real lives go on after apparent 'happy ever after' endings. After slavery was abolished, this left a power vacuum into which came Christian do-gooders, still corrupted by racist attitudes, who could not understand why freed slaves did not want to cut sugar cane, even for pay.

The breaking of slavery also broke many freed slaves, by removing the land that they had farmed, first for sustenance, later for market. This land was initially lent to them by plantation owners, but, when freed slaves would not cut sugar cane, the owners put up rents extortionately. The rented land was not safe: plantation owners would allow raids if the black inhabitants still refused to work on the plantations. Former slaves were driven to the edges of plantations, on hazy borderlands where ownership was not quite established, to eke out a living. The Long Song is, as Levy says, a song cycle, with temporary endings but no closure.

How does any of this mean that The Long Song is better than The Help?

The difference is that the story told by The Help faithfully mimics the background tapestry known as 'the misery of racism', while The Long Song is picked out in relief against it.

Levy allows July to edit out the parts of her story she does not wish to tell. It is this freedom to choose what she wants to tell which emancipates July.

The life she has lived is clearly appallingly hard, and she has survived terror, abuse and starvation. But in the telling of her story, she has chosen freely how and how much she gives away.

She decides whether she will shield us, or herself, from truly obscene events in her life through different devices available to her: re-writing an ending, for example, or telling a scene through contradictory hearsay. She might slip in a vital detail, like a birth, retrospectively, rather than as part of a red-raw breathless telling of the present. When she feels like it, she leaves out thirty years or so. We are only aware that July has made something up when her son Thomas reads the manuscript and criticizes it.

Andrea Levy enables July, a kind of Jamaican Becky Sharpe, to play with her past, and thus shows that the events of the past belong in the past. July now is not July then: she has come a long way.

Some of her acts of defiance have been successful, others have nearly felled her. Defiance has not freed her; accident has. Change has not come through the heroic actions of a single person — she has not brought about modern times. Change has come creeping through the cumulative actions of many people, and through lucky encounters, not through policy changes and grand speeches. But it has come.

The Long Song gives me fresh hope that I might one day be a good enough writer to tackle the subjects that I sometimes feel so saturated and weighed down by: I don't want to write a misery memoir; I don't want to write a rant; I don't want to write a self-help manual. I want to write a story — this is what Andrea's brilliant writing helps me remember: that what a writer has to focus on is telling the story of her characters, that everything should be in the service of that telling.

1 comment:

Recipe Junkie said...

I loved reading The Help, but you are right of course. I will put The Long Song on my list.