The Long Song by Andrea Levy: Book Review

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.

Weekend Cooking – from The Long Song

One of the books I’m currently reading is The Long Song, a novel about slavery set in 19th century Jamaica, by Andrea Levy. The narrator is July, now an old woman born as a slave, writing her memoirs.

This morning I read about the preparations for the Yuletide dinner of 1831. There were to be twelve people at the plantation owner’s table.  Caroline, the owner’s sister is giving Hannah, the cook, her orders for the food to be provided.

There was to be both turtle and vegetable soups, mutton, pigeon pies and guinea fowl, a boiled ham and a turkey or two, turtle served in the shell (but she would prefer beef), four stewed ducks, cheese, as many hogsheads as they could get and roasted pig.

There was also to be:

… malt liquor, wine, porter, cider, brandy and rum, watermelon, mango, pawpaw, naseberry, soursop, grandilla fruit. ‘And make sure the preserve has come from England. Strawberry or damson. Do not serve guava, ginger or that ghastly sorrel jelly. I’m so tired of Jamaican jams.’

Hannah had stopped listening, for the need to shout ‘And me to fix-up all this? You  a gut-fatty, cha!’ at her misssus was becoming overpowering in her. (pages 74 – 75)

And in case they were still hungry after this obscene amount of food, Hannah was told to make plum pudding. Hannah remembered how to make it –

A little fruit, a little molasses, some cornmeal, eggs, plenty rum. Mash it up a bit. Put this mess in that silly round mould the missus did give her the first Christmas she arrived, and boil it until the water does run dry. And when the thing is hard then it is done. (pages 75 – 76)

So far I think this book is beautifully written, vivid, lively and enthralling.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads.