In some ways these books couldn’t be more different. The Long Song is set in Jamaica; Room in America. The Long Song is a historical novel; Room is contemporary. But what they have in common is more than the fact that I read them both last week, that they were both short-listed for the Booker (which Room won), or that I admired them both.
They deal with difficult subjects. Room is about a five year old boy and his mother, abducted seven years earlier. Ever since, they’ve lived in captivity, confined to an 11 by 11 foot room. How she keeps her son fit mentally and physically and how they adjust to the world outside make for a gripping narrative. The Long Song is about slavery in Jamaica, particularly around the time of several rebellions, just prior to abolition. I didn’t know anything about this history, and found it fascinating.
But what makes these books outstanding and the difficult subject matter tolerable is the skillful, innovative use of first person narration.
Room‘s narrator is a little boy who is literate and numerate way beyond his years while at the same time naive, his perceptions skewed by living all his life with his mother in a single room. The choice of narrator is courageous and brilliant. It’s courageous because a 5 year old narrator is limited in expressive skill and understanding. Emma Donoghue just manages to stay within the bounds of believability while pushing it for the sake of the story.
The narrator is a brilliant choice because his naivite works for the story. Sheltered from most details of his mom’s abuse, he shelters the reader. Yet his view of captivity (all he’s known, safe, warm, close to his mother) and his view of the world (strange, threatening, big, different) tell more about both than a lengthy discourse. Through his narration, Donoghue vividly portrays what he sees. Through his thoughts and reactions, she creates an endearing, poignant and full bodied character. I was astounded by how accurate this portrayal was in terms of getting at a child’s reactions to captivity and freedom.
In The Long Song, Levy’s narrator is an old Black woman who has been asked by her son, a successful publisher, to write her memoirs. The story alternates between her memoir of the 1830’s and her present day interactions with her son and his family. The narrator is poetic, tough, sly, funny and “unreliable.” I put that in quotation marks because her lack of reliability is only in her literal statements; the truth shouts out between the lines and I would bet that the narrator knows it. She is such a vivid character that I find myself slipping into talking about her as if she were real, something that always makes me roll my eyes when friends or book club members do it.
Levy’s narrator uses her privilege as memoirist and old lady to skip over horrors when she finds they’re too much, and so Levy saves the reader from being overwhelmed. Yet the narrator’s sharp and clever observations convey everything that needs to be conveyed. In her website Levy says:
[T]he last thing I wanted to do was to write a novel about slavery in Jamaica. Why? Because how could anyone write about slavery without it turning into a harrowing tale of violence and misery?
…But as soon as I began to reflect upon on the plain historical facts, I realised that slavery was much more than a two-act play; it was a massive social system – a society in the true sense – that endured for three hundred years….
[T]here are very few surviving documents and artefacts that I could find where enslaved people speak of and for themselves…This is where I believe that fiction comes in to it’s own. Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out. Not just the wails of anguish and victimhood that we are used to, although that is very much part of the story, but the chatter and clatter of people building their lives, families and communities, ducking, diving and conducting the businesses of life in appallingly difficult circumstances. Now THERE is a story.
And she wrote it brilliantly.
I have used the word “brilliant” several times in this post because these were both books and writers whose skill is impressive, subject matter difficult, and the end result beautiful.