Hamish Hamilton, 2010
When I picked up my copy of The Long Song from the library, I hadn’t read any of Andrea Levy’s novels (this being her fifth), so I didn’t have any expectations.
That changed when I read the first paragraph, and almost immediately, because its first sentence is just the sort that I love: “The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.”
See, this reminds me of some of my longtime-favourite quotes. Like this from Dionne Brand: “Writing is an act of desire, as is reading.” And this, from Nicole Brossard: “Reading is food.” (There are more bookish quotes if you browse the tabs above.)
So that first sentence of The Long Song made me smile. Yes, it definitely did. But not in a comfortable way, because this could be the magic of a good first line. No, I was smiling, but in a nervous way, like I’ve just been introduced to someone that someone else thinks I’ll really like, but I’m not entirely sure yet and the pressure is on.
And then I read: “My mama had a story — a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.”
Now, I realize that this conceit is not to everybody’s taste, but I love the Dear Reader convention. I love to be addressed, to have the space that is traditionally reserved for me be openly acknowledged. (Still quote-hungry? Here are some on that very subject.)
So my smile eased into something more comfortable. And, then, a few pages later, I find: “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 little ink.”
“Go to any shelf that groans under a weight of books and there, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold, will be volumes whose contents will find you meandering through the puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.”
No twaddle, thanks. This here is just fine. And more, please.
But then, halfway through the novel.
“And this is why I can go no further. This is why my story is at an end. For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these. And please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them. It is only my son that desires it. For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again.”
:: insert remembered moment of reader’s panic ::
Don’t worry: I told you, it’s halfway through the novel. She keeps on with her story and I’ll be keeping on with Andrea Levy. Terrific storytelling!
What do you think of the Dear Reader approach? Do you find it welcoming or irritating? Have you read any of the author’s other novels or do you mean to? Do you have a particular favourite?
PS I know I’ve hardly said anything about the story but I don’t believe that anybody could tell it better than she did. Andrea Levy’s website offers details and an extract if you need more.
SPS I originally posted this to BuriedInPrint.