*Room and The Long Song

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.

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13 thoughts on “*Room and The Long Song

  1. Now I hadn’t thought to read either of these novels – for undefinable reasons they hadn’t properly appealed to me – until now. What a wonderful review, Lilian and I will definitely be looking for these when they come out in paperback.

  2. I love Levy and was hoping to read this new book of hers before too long, you’ve convinced me to bump it further up the TBR list. I was somewhat avoiding Room, but I think I will give it a try. I like writing that can turn a difficult story into something meaningful but also palatable. And I love looking at POV and how it works.

  3. Breaking from my Internet hiatus to say I agree! Room was indeed brilliant, and The Long Song (which I am still reading) even more so.

  4. Oh, I’d love to talk with you at length about Room! Did the device of the voice ever feel like device to you, after a while?

  5. Neither of these are the “type” of book I usually read, but they both sound gripping and harrowing and definitely worth looking out for. Thanks.

    PS I can’t find your novels on Kindle – is this a UK thing, or are they not available electronically yet?

  6. Litlove, thank you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

    Verbivore this was my first introduction to Levy and a terrific intro it was. I’m curious now to read her other work.

    Charlotte, thank you for leaving a comment despite your hiatus! I’ll be interested to hear what you think about these books when you return to your blog.

    Beth, I’d so enjoy talking more with you about it in any form–blog, email, phone whatever. In brief I didn’t feel like it was a device but there were moments where the voice was too sophisticated for a 5 year old. But overall the book was so good, insightful and gripping and true to the characters and situation, that I could forgive it.

    Rachel, I’ve been gratified over the last year by some books I’ve read as a result of blog reviews that I wouldn’t normally have picked up. I’ve noticed that there aren’t kindle editions of my books, and I intend to redress that quite soon.

  7. Room was pipped at the Booker post by The Finkler Question, but I’d really like to read them all, Room in particular as I have only heard great things about it; it sounds like she did a terrific job with an extraordinarily difficult choice of narrator.

    1. See me slap my forehead! I knew that The Finkler Question won but somehow in my mind Room won. I think I’d heard so much about it that it just registered that way. I just got The Finkler Question and started it yesterday though was so tired I didn’t get past the 2nd page. But I’m taken–the writing is just so good.

  8. I keep going back and forth about reading Room — as I keep going back and forth about reading contemporary novels versus reading older ones. But you make me a little more inclined to pick it up, especially if I come across it in my library.

  9. I am still eying Room without giving it a go. I started Donoghues Kissing the Witch instead. I love retellings of fairytales ever since I discovered Angela Carter in my teens. It is very beautiful. I will read Room eventually. I still haven’t read Levy’s first book but am lookig forwar to finally discover this writer.

  10. Dorothy, I thought Room would be a difficult book because of its subject matter but it isn’t. Is that what makes you hesitate?

    Caroline, I so admire Angela Carter! Kissing the Witch sounds like great fun (I just had a look at the description on Amazon). I’m curious to compare Room to Donoghue’s historical novels. Especially so because my prev 2 novels were historical and the one I just finished contemporary. I found it encouraging to discover that this was her first contemporary novel, too.

  11. I always thought it would be much more difficult to write historical fiction. I write myself but I wouldn’t dare writing historical novels. The research might burden my writing. (I am a long way from being published but hopefully getting there). I bought your novel from amazon three weeks ago. I am really looking forward to it but I need the right moment to start. I always do. I just embarked on a Sebald journey. One of my favourite movies The Man Who Cried could appeal to you. Do you know it?

    1. Thanks for the movie recommendation, Caroline! The historical research is both challenging and exhilarating. I found it frustrating at times and also stimulating and rewarding. But I also really enjoyed writing a novel set here and now. I’ve done research at times that ended up not being used because in one case the entire location was cut from the novel and in another case I didn’t end up writing the book at all. I might at some later point.

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