With The Long Song, Levy once again reinvents the historical novel.
Told in the irresistibly willful and intimate voice of Miss July, with some editorial assistance from her son, Thomas, The Long Song is at once defiant, funny, and shocking. The child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation, July lives with her mother until Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.” Resourceful and mischievous, July soon becomes indispensable to her mistress. Together they live through the bloody Baptist war, followed by the violent and chaotic end of slavery. Taught to read and write so that she can help her mistress run the business, July remains bound to the plantation despite her “freedom.” It is the arrival of a young English overseer, Robert Goodwin, that will dramatically change life in the great house for both July and her mistress. Prompted and provoked by her son’s persistent questioning, July’s resilience and heartbreak are gradually revealed in this extraordinarily powerful story of slavery, revolution, freedom, and love.
Set in Jamaica in the 1800’s this book follows the story of July, a slave girl taken from her mother aged only about 8 years old. July narrates the story herself and uses language that would have been her own. This can take a little getting used to, but obviously, lends authority to the story. It also enables July to step between different times and parts of her life. She would come out of the story and back to the present day. This brought out her sense of humour and allows us to share the reflections she is making as she writes about her life, not least of which is her debating whether what she has written is actually true. This makes for interesting reading!
July has quite an eventful life. She experiences both positive and negative results of living in slavery, which makes this a fascinating and intriguing read. Her personal relationships, which are so impacted by her slave state are very varied, her view of herself is really interesting, and how she sees herself in relation to others. This book felt very driven by the characters, and at times therefore felt a bit slow. However there is actually plenty of action, and on reflection I felt that the slowness came because I couldnt tell where the story was going next. It was like a wide river, meandering along, but with no shortage of things to look at on the way!
The history side of the story also appealed to me. I don’t know much about what happened in the countries where slavery was when it was brought to an end and I learnt loads! It was even more interesting to read it from the point of view of the slaves. In particular the story brought home the difficulties and complications any such transition would incur.
Only after reading the book did I realise that Andrea Levy also wrote ‘Small Island’ which has been adapted for television and is something I would like to read. This is a book I may not have ordinarily read (it was a book club book) but I would like to read more of her work. If you have found books like ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ interesting, then I think you will like this.
Verdict: An interesting and sometimes unexpected read. Definitely one to try.
Reviewed by Helen