Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song
Andrea Levy

I think that this is a very well-written book. It purports to be the life's reminiscences of an old woman, yet it encompasses the brutality of slavery in Jamaica, the complexity of the transition that followed emancipation, British racism, and its many cloaks. The straight-forward story-telling is compelling, but the social situation of the setting leaves a lasting impression.
Levy has developed a style that seamlessly integrates narrative with description. So, for instance, when reading about the preparations for a Christmas Dinner, we are simultaneously caught up in the action and interaction of the characters, and also given a vivid picture of plantation life in 1870s Jamaica. The setting has been well researched, from the oranges rubbed on the wood floors to make them shine, to the difference in sanitary practices between rich and poor. The social interactions are subtly but clearly presented - the rivalry between the white plantation owners, the treatment of slaves, and the complicity among slaves as they exact their own little revenges upon their owners.
The narrative is just fast enough to be compelling, but it is infused by a vivid depiction of life among blacks and whites under the hot Caribbean sun. The pacing is perfect. Descriptions are always germane to the narrative which is recounted by July, the audacious black house-slave whose story frames the book.
The voice, or voices, sound authentic and are consistent with the narration. The bulk of the story is told by July, by now elderly and living with her son, Thomas, the minor voice, who is the well-educated owner of a publishing house. This combination of narrators makes the voices plausible. July has an irrepressible side to her character which she may have lost during the hard years after her master left Jamaica, but which resurfaces in old age when life is easier. As an old woman, she nags her grandchildren; as a young woman she pestered her mistress. We see the same irrepressible nature in her little grand daughters. The persistence of this trait gives consistency to her voice. The impetus and commitment to tell the whole tale comes from the educated Thomas who recognizes that his mother has a story worth telling. We who have had older parents identify with his response: "You should write this down!"
The role of Christianity in the emancipation of the slaves comes under reflective scrutiny. Christian ideals led to freedom for slaves, but British societal values made it hard for whites to follow their Biblical teaching when faced with colonial life. The headstart which Thomas received by being brought up in a strict Baptist family and his eventual blossoming under the tutelage of the freethinker, Linus Gray, symbolizes the limitation of the Bible-believing emancipationists.
A comparison begs to be made between the naughty, imaginative July of The Long Song, and the teflon Aminata of The Book of Negroes (Someone Knows My Name in the US) by Lawrence Hill. Both protagonists experienced the horrors of slavery and the transition to emancipation, although the timing was later in the US. Both are telling their story to a named audience. Levy is so much more astute to address us, the readers, through the intervention of her son, than was Hill, who compelled his character to speak to an audience of self-righteous emancipators with political ambitions. July is a character who comes alive on the page, whereas little Aminata soldiers on, unable to show her emotions to her readers.
The Long Song is a memorable book for the character of July, who defiantly dances through the narrative, and for the sober setting painted so vividly. Poor benighted Jamaica. With such racial exploitation in its history, no wonder it is such a troubled country today. What terrible mistakes were made. What indifference and hatred flourished.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Steig Larsson

This is a book for people who are devoted to Lisbeth Salander, to be read only by those who have already devoured the other books in the Millenium Series: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. It is a tome with a cast of thousands and plots and subplots which would seem impossible to untangle and which I shall not attempt to summarize. There are not as many cliffhangers as in the other two books, but the clever weaving of all the plot threads kept my interest. The "hornets' nest" is the Swedish version of the CIA which hides secrets within secrets and has become a lair for people with their own agendas. The proud Swedish democracy has become undemocratic because of a power base hidden in their 'Sapo.'

This whole scenario probably resonates more with Swedes than with other nationalities, but it appeals to conspiracy theorists everywhere.

Lisbeth's complex character develops a little and she becomes less asocial as she realizes that she has friends who are willing to go to great lengths to help her. I would have liked to see more character development in this last novel of the series. The hornets' nest is kicked and scattered with 100 pages left to go. I had hoped that the rest of the book would focus on how Lisbeth realigned her life now that she had been exonerated. Immediately after the trial, having vanquished her enemies, she feels no direction in her life and flees to Gibraltar. When she returns to Sweden, it is not with a new grounding and promise to her life, but to tie up the loose plot ends and revisit Larsson's theme of violence against women. Much of the praise for the Millenium Series centres on the unusual character of Salander, and all three books have the words, 'The Girl' in the title. I had expected that this third book would have more resolution to how she adapts to being a citizen with, as the judge told her, not only rights but also obligations to society. Salander has made firm friends in Holgren, Blomkvist, Giannini, Armansky, Dr. Jonasson and Mimmi, and yet Larsson persists in depicting her antisocial personality.
The lasting theme in this book is how a government organization like Sapo (or the CIA or MI5 or CSIS) which is set up to foil secret plots against our democratic societies can become trapped by its own secrecy. Because it is set up to sift through secrets, a government intelligence agency can become too secretive in itself and become a haven for those who want to conduct secret missions that conflict with the democracy which the organizations are mandated to protect.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest is a doorstop, but a must-read for people who want the full dose of this Swedish publishing sensation.