Andrea Levy‘s fifth novel, this week short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize, is a narrated story about the period surrounding the ending of slavery on the Jamaican sugar plantations, but stretching across three – actually, four – generations of the same family both in Jamaica and in the UK. On the surface, this is well-trod territory for Levy, albeit that the main events of this novel take place at a period much earlier in history than those of her others.
Let’s be clear, this is a novel whose theme is violence; the racist inhumanity of the exploitation of black people; and the crushing destitution of poverty. The theme is serious, difficult, dark; about humans at their most venal. Yet the tale is leavened with humour, not to say comedy: the narrator has a twinkle in her eye and a ready wit; the heavy events taking place in the novel are experienced at first hand, rather than related at a distance, but wry observation and ribaldry, and even romance, are never far from the surface. Despite an often desperate position, the slaves never lose their self-respect, and the narration relates with delight their ability to achieve small wins to keep morale going. Levy uses language with great skill, pulling no punches in the words she uses to describe both how the plantation owners spoke to (and about) the slaves who worked for them and the earthy way in which the slaves address each other, as well as in describing the harrowing filth of the conditions in which they worked and lived. And the characterisation, as developed during the narration, has largely realised a set of characters who are effective, strong and very real. The whole provides a vivid portrait of the time and of the instinct for survival and self-determination of the Jamaican people.
So far, so good. So why aren’t I clamouring for this to win the Man Booker this year? I think it’s largely the structure: the use of the device of the narrator appears contrived and the effect of having a narrator addressing both her life story in retrospect and her son in present time (albeit that the present is also historic) quickly palled, leading to a disengagement on the part at least of this reader. For a novel whose use of language is utterly gripping in the circumstances of the main events taking place on the plantations, its use in the conversations between the narrator and her son is curiously stilted, over-formal and, as a result, not particularly convincing. The romance that kicks off the second half of the book appears half-hearted. I found myself frequently wondering where the story was going as it meandered towards its conclusion and I’m left with the conclusion that Levy failed to take proper control of the back half of the novel. A shame – it’s left a flawed work whose aspirations and theme, and early telling, deserved better.
Incidentally, this is the third novel I’ve read in succession which kicks off with the narration of a difficult birth. All have been high-profile books by authors committed to achievement (and, no doubt with an eye on prize nominations). Perhaps a subconscious metaphor for the pains of the gestation of complex novels?