I thoroughly enjoyed The Long Song by Andrea Levy. I think it may even be the best book I’ve read so far this year.
It’s brutal, savage, and unrelenting in depicting the lives of the slaves in Jamaica just as slavery was coming to an end and both the slaves and their former owners were adjusting to their freedom. The narrator is July, at the beginning a spirited young woman, born in a sugar-cane field, telling her story at her son’s suggestion. She begins by telling of her conception, but then says:
Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings from the backside of a mule is your desire. (page8)
It is a tale I found full of interest and one that is beautifully written too. I didn’t want to stop reading it, my only criticism being that I thought towards the end it was too condensed. There was a gap of thirty years, largely unexplained, but too much detail would have taken attention away from the main events of the story.
July lives with Kitty her mother until Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner arrives and takes her to live in the big house as her servant and rename her ‘Marguerite’. Caroline is a frivolous, self-obsessed, ignorant woman and soon becomes dependent on July whilst still treating her as less than nothing – a slave. The end of slavery is violent and bloody but July lives on through it with Caroline, eventually helping her to run the plantation even though she is now ‘free’.
The story takes a tragic turn with the introduction of Robert Goodwin, a young Englishman, leading inevitably to heartbreak for July. There are several sub-plots that waylaid me, but I read it quickly eager to find out what happened. It’s shocking, breath-taking and completely absorbing.