Kiwiflora's Reviews > The Long Song

The Long Song by Andrea Levy
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Oct 28, 10

Read in October, 2010

Andrea Levy centres her novel on a dark chapter in British history - the last years of a 300 year history of slavery in Jamaica. In the first quarter of the 19th century, July is born to Kitty, a field slave on the Amity plantation. Her father is the brutal white overseer, so July is a mulatto. Not that this makes her life any easier, but purely by chance she is literally taken from her mother's arms and ends up as a house slave living in the big house as the personal maid to Caroline Mortimer, sister to the English owner of the plantation. July's life is by no means easy, but she is smart, has excellent instincts and quickly learns to manipulate her mistress, and eventually the new white overseer, fresh off the boat from England, idealistic and noble.

At this time there were strong moves in Britain to abolish slavery, but naturally it took a while to filter through to places like the Carribean. In 1831, the slaves in the area of Jamaica that the novel is set in, revolted against the British landowners. The revolt as one would expect. was quickly and violently and cruelly suppressed with plenty of reprisals against the slaves, but it did result a few years later in slavery in Jamaica being abolished, and the slaves being freed. Although the changes brought about by the stroke of a pen in London took considerably longer to take place at the grass roots of plantation life somewhere half way around the world. Suffice to say that July's life is never an easy one, but it does make a superb story.

Not only is the story riveting, but the author has chosen to tell it through the eyes of July as an elderly woman, telling it her way, to her son, who wants the story told his way. In dribs and drabs the son 'encourages' his mother to tell her story, in wonderful parent-child dialogue, the son of course wanting every detail possible and the mother wanting to keep some things secret. It is almost as if there are two stories going on in this novel.

The best thing about this story is the rich use of language. July is of slave birth and so has no chance of growing up speaking the 'Queen's English',let alone being able to read and write. Her way of speaking and telling a story is a complete corruption of English as we know it. It is colourful, colloquial, idiosyncratic and has a whole rhythm and music to it that English English does not, making it a joy to read and enjoy. On first reading there were sentences that just did not make sense, but like all good writers, she makes us re-read the sentence to get the sense.

The subject matter is tragic, violent, heart-rending, far too visual and ghastly in places to be called enjoyable. But July's refusal to give up, to keep on trying to make things better for herself, her ability to turn situations to her advantage give this story enormous energy and hope, and like many other books I have read and loved, it shows the power of the human spirit to overcome and beat adversity. Read this and just love this woman for the survivor she is.
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