” July sucked upon her teeth for a long while; being called Marguerite by this woman was what began the cuss, but its vent was lengthened for having this missus bid her, as if she were still her slave, to sit with her. Sit with her! Cha. ” (Ch.30, p.251-2)
In The Long Song, Andrea Levy explores her Jamaican heritage with the story of a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in 1830s Jamaica, just as emancipation is juddering into action. The story is packaged in a metafictional conceit, with a preface and an afterword purporting to have been written by a Thomas Kinsman, a renown painter living in Jamaica in 1898, the foundling son of the slave girl who was taken away in infancy by Baptist missionaries to be raised in England. So, punctuated by editorial suggestions and present-day interjections, the book is the memoir of the now octogenarian Miss July, who was born into slavery on a sugar cane plantation called Amity.
With eyes dulled as filthy water, this July was so fearful a young woman that the barking of a dog, the slamming of a door, the clatter of a dropped spoon, would see her troubled as if the earth did wobble beneath her. Every fresh morning she puzzled over whether she had woken, for, as in her sleeping dreams . . . (Ch.17, p.149)
Miss July was conceived when Amity’s Scottish overseer thrust upon himself unwanted upon her mother, Kitty. Later, she was so determined upon her work in the field that she was not aware her baby had dropped out of her womb. Despite the disgraceful birthright, July’s lighter skin did her a favor. Thanks to this “whiff of English white,” she was spotted on the roadside by Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner’s widowed sister, who selected the little girl to be her own maid, and renamed her Marguerite.
July all at once gave up the whole notion of charming this white man, for there was too much work to do within it. And what a foolish endeavour it was. She needed no glass to tell her that she was too dark and lowly a house servant for a man so fine English as Robert Goodwin to find beauty within her. (Ch.23, p.201)
After the uprising known as the Baptist War erupts in 1831, leading to the emancipation of Jamaican slaves, Miss July becomes more than a servant to Caroline. Taught to read and write, she helps run the plantation half ravaged by riots. The arrival of a young English overseer who later becomes Amity’s owner changes both Caroline and July’s lives. He’s in love with July but this love is forbidden. What follows emancipation isn’t exactly paradise because the freed slaves now demand wages and less work hours. Soon Goodwin realizes it’s difficult to preach humane values to these former slaves.
The book is packed with historical drama, but Levy is more concerned with life as it’s actually experienced. I’m rapt by July’s story—one minute I’m giggling as she cheekily sabotages Caroline’s grand Christmas dinner by swapping her Irish table linen for an old bed sheet, the nest I’m shocked by the injustice and murder as the Brits try savagely to quell the rebellion. Despite a slow beginning, The Long Song paints a persuasive portrait of the Jamaican slave society and relationships among the slaves, the mulattoes, quadroons, and the whites. Levy seems to get carried away with the introduction of a huge skein of minor characters, when she needs to focus on Kitty, July, and Caroline. Overall it’s a good book on the plight to freedom, but the writing is convoluted and confusing at times, and most of all, I don’t enjoy the metafiction format, especially the sidebars where the narrator speaks to the reader about the memoir she is writing.
312 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardcover. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]