A friend from college who was a fellow English major recommended Andrea Levy‘s The Long Song to me since it was the most recent book by an author we had enjoyed reading in a class on post-colonial novels. When I first read Levy’s Small Island, I was hooked by her grand story about ordinary people that takes place in Jamaica and England during World War II and tells the stories of four people whose lives and stories cross an ocean to meet. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and since Levy’s most recent novel came highly recommended, I was looking forward to reading it.
The Long Song is the tale of July, a slave born on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation to a slave woman who has been raped by her overseer. July tells her story as she remembers it, speaking as an outside narrator watching the happenings and histories that form July’s tale, although she tells it in the third person. The novel opens with a forward from July’s son, a publisher who explains that his mother was so compelled to tell her story, he felt obliged to help her record her memories. July relates her story beginning with her birth, explaining the different versions of her birth story that have made their way into legend. July is an informed narrator who seems to have more facts and insights than a typical first-person narrator would have on her subjects. The reader is reminded of the fact that July is narrating the novel when she pauses her story to address her reader directly to ask a question, clarify a point, or offer alternative viewpoints or perspectives on an incident she describes. The effect is that the reader questions what July has to say while still trusting her and entering into her story with a sense of familiarity that the reader might not feel if July weren’t so inviting.
July is born to be a field slave, but instead her life’s path takes a permanent turn when the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, handpicks July to be her house slave. In an instant, July is pried from her mother and placed in the plantation’s manor to attend to every need of the lazy and spoiled Caroline. Caroline, a young widow, has just moved to Jamaica from England to live with her brother. She is enchanted with the little girl July when she meets her, but disapproves of her name, and insists upon calling her Marguerite instead, a name she thinks is more refined. Despite the fact that Caroline treats July as a slave, throughout the book she is the only person that Caroline could call a friend. She relies on her to mend her clothes, clean her underwear, rub her back and sugar her coffee. July complies for the most part, but that doesn’t mean she never stands up to her mistress. It’s interesting to read a narrative in which the lines of social class between slave and master are blurred. Although July would probably not claim any great love for her complaining mistress, she is protective of her when the slaves of Jamaica revolt against their masters when the King of England declares them free. July refuses to allow any harm to come to Caroline, despite the fact that Caroline hardly treats her like an equal. Still, like it or not, Caroline and July have come to depend on one another. Each woman’s decisions and actions have life-altering effects on the other, and together they live through the violent ending of slavery in Jamaica, the attempt to keep up the plantation by paying the slaves to continue to work the land, and the arrival of a new overseer from England who wedges into the inner workings of July and Caroline’s relationship in a way that changes their lives forever.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, this novel has an engaging voice and the third-person narrative gives the novel a more complete sense of story, although July is the person through whose eyes we get most of the information. I enjoyed the way that July often pauses in the narration to ask the reader to consider events in the story from a different viewpoint or explain the reason she tells an event in a certain way. Levy is a craftswoman with her words; she is able to encapsulate the basic realities and emotions of what it means to be human. In her most recent novel, she takes on the challenge of writing about slavery in a meaningful and gritty way that still feels fresh, while reminding us of the horrors of slavery and racism told through the eyes and voice of a scrappy and realistic heroine.
My rating: Liked it (3 of 5 stars)
(Acknowledgements:I read the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The Long Song by Andrea Levy, copyright 2010. ISBN 978-0-374-19217-4).