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samedi 9 octobre 2010

Renée Levine reviews The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

This amazing novel brings you, perhaps reluctantly but immediately to Jamaica 1831, directly into the life on a large sugar cane plantation and the life of both slaves and white rulers. The time is just before the British Empire frees all its slaves, we witness a brutal revolt and we get to experience the freedom given by the Parliament when they passed the abolition of slavery act and its attendant results for both slave and massa.

The book is packaged with a preface and an afterword supposedly written by Thomas Kinsman, a former black London printer who returns to Jamaica in 1898 where he was born before being shipped off as a rejected infant by his mother. This educated and well dressed gentleman interprets the tale from time to time giving advice to his mother, the author of the book. She writes the story but is full of concern about its style since the story is complex. Thus she switches from first person to third person in order to keep us, the reader, engaged and not turned off by unnecessary detail, often boring in historic accounts. On the other hand, she must bring detail to the tale so that you, again you the reader, can absorb the horrors of that life lived by slaves.

July is old when she tells the tale but the story begins with her birth, actually it begins with the violent rape of her mother Kitty, a slave raped by the white overseer of Plantation Amity. However, July is not always present in the telling: when the tale is told in the third person it is in the past, when it is told in the first person, it is in the present. The old woman is more sophisticated than was the girl and the house slave who speaks in Jamaican patois.

All levels of plantation life are given to us: the social gulf among the house and the field slaves, the casual brutality of white over black, the jealousy of status in the black world among gradations of color and of course the Church and its hypocrisy, the man of god who obeys his marital vows but can enjoy sex with the nigger under the same vows.

The story is not easy to enter. I flailed about for a goodly while trying to “get it” between the relationships, the languages and the switches of time. When the tale was done, I loved the work that had gone into it and felt it was more than worth while. Brilliant construct, an exciting read. Andrea Levy, grew up black, born in black London of Jamaican (but mixed with jewish and irish some time ago) parents. Her father was a veteran of the war who decided to immigrate to Britain after the war. This is her first novel set in Jamaica and it has perfect pitch. (not deliberate ) One feels that she is intimate as only one who has suffered and lived this tale can be with such a setting and such a history.

lundi 13 avril 2009

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

One of my daughters brought me this novel about the Vel’ d’Hiv from the States, afraid that I would scorn it with my superior literary tastes, but wanting to know what I thought of it. So I will be frank: it is not a piece of literature but rather a novel for the young who know nothing or little of the events in France, and in particular in Paris, in 1942 when the Jews were rounded up and sent to detention camps in the Loiret before being shipped off to their death in Auschwitz.

I am a refugee myself and have always read everything that I could find about that period, wanting to understand the not understandable. Therefore the story was not news for me but I admit to greatly admiring what the author managed to do with a two-tiered approach to the subject. The novel takes place in Paris, in 1942 and then again in 2002 in more or less alternating chapters.

The story of the ten year old girl whose parents were taken to the camps and killed whereas she manages to escape after brutal treatment, is intertwined with the story of a young woman journalist from Boston now living in Paris with her french husband and daughter. Julia Jarmond almost accidentally runs into the tale of the horrors of what the French, yes the French not the Germans, did to help exterminate its own Jews via an assignment from her newspaper. Having found her subject, she cannot let go and becomes obsessed with the need to find out more and more about Sarah and thereby tells her readers the story of what actually happened in France in 1942.

Young people nowadays probably don’t know much or anything about all this and the author must be congratulated for having found just the right voice to keep the tension while teaching a lesson in history. It seems the book has already been bought for the film rights.

My only objections are to her grammar, too sloppy for my needs: “although she was not as fluent as them”;

“like he can’t get that person off the phone”; too many uses of “like”, however, I enjoyed her description of Paris: ”It took me twenty-five years to blend in, but I did it. I learned to put up with impatient waiters and rude taxi drivers. I learned to drive round Place de L’Etoile, impervious to the insults yelled at me by irate bus drivers, and – more surprisingly – by highlighted blondes in shiny black Minis. I learned how to tame arrogant concierges, snotty saleswomen, blasé telephone operators, and pompous doctors. I learned that Parisians consider themselves superior to the rest of the world....”.

I can easily recommend the book. It is gripping, moving, infinitely sad and instructive all at the same time. It is perfectly set in the city in which I live and feels true in all ways, both when dealing with the past as well as when the action is in the present.

samedi 7 février 2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I am going to lump two books that are far from one another in time but near one another in theme. No doubt, all of you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when you were teenagers but perhaps did not sufficiently appreciate the courage and the talent of the author at that time in your lives. This book shows in ways never seen before, the meaning of human beings used as property. It portrays an economic system based on dreadful injustice and yet maintained and faithfully exercised by believing Christians who were sure that they performed God’s work and fulfilled his commands by exploiting the work of their fellow men in a grotesquely unjust manner. Southern plantations prospered by means of slaves as property until the horrors grew to be known and made poignant via the slaves who managed to escape to the north, in particular into Canada. As a side comment, be it known that I believe eight U.S. presidents were slave owners. No wonder we are not done with the consequences of this history.

Geraldine Brooks who writes today and who is or perhaps was, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and received the Pulitzer Prize, has written several novels of which I will mention MARCH, the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a radical clergyman based on Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father who goes off to war to fight the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a minister in New England at the time of which Mrs. Stowe tells her story from the point of view of a Southern woman in 1861.

Do not imagine that this is a simplistic right/wrong tale of good and evil.  Far from it.  Both books deal with the complexities of the disaster, of the misery of war and the tragedies of peace, but they can be and perhaps should be read one after another to get a full picture of a time which is, by all accounts concerning the last American election, not yet completely resolved. Color mattered.  Color matters still. 

While I am talking to you about Geraldine Brooks, I would like to draw your attention to two other books by the same author: Year of Wonders and People of the Book.  The former deals with the bubonic plague in a village in England in the seventeenth century and the latter is almost a detective story concerning the origins of an illuminated manuscript created by Spanish Jews around 1500 and mysteriously survived to be discovered in Sarajevo in the present time. I agree, this is not much of a review, but I was so thrilled and enthralled by all three of the Brooks books that I need at least to mention them to you while focusing on the Civil War and race aspect of the two first ones I mentioned and meant to write about.