The Long Song by Andrea Levy
One of the best-known ‘rules’ of fiction writing is to write what you know – it’s been a long time since anyone on the planet had first-hand knowledge of slavery in Jamaica, but what Andrea Levy, the writer of this new novel addressing that topic, The Long Song, does have is a complex personal background that helps explain how she can write so effectively and movingly about the collision of two cultures – in this case, the white plantation owners from Britain and the blacks (or negroes, as they were referred to at the time) and mulattoes who served them in the fields and homes of 1830s Jamaica.
Andrea Levy’s father sailed from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush ship in 1948, and her mother joined him soon after – Andrea was born in London in 1956, growing up black and the child of Caribbean immigrants in what was then still a very white country, and she says this experience has given her a complex perspective on the country of her birth.
This really shines through in The Long Song, which, while it faces some of the horrors and injustices of slavery and its aftermath head-on, takes quite an even-handed approach to its characters – she isn’t telling you what to think of the main characters, the plantation owners and slaves at the centre of the book, but showing you who they are and letting you judge for yourself, which is a hard task for any writer.
I want to just read a portion of the book’s introduction, because this explains really well how the story is told: You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work. My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.
Who the narrator, Thomas’s mother, is is a fact that Levy cleverly conceals until the end of the book – which centres around July, a slave girl who lives on a sugar plantation, and we see this period in history through her eyes.
As a slave, her life is not her own, but one of the best elements of The Long Song is how she responds to the events in her life – there’s an illicit love affair, unexpected offspring, and she is banished from the plantation at one point – and how these reveal the depths of her character – I’d be really interested to know how much of July is based on Andrea Levy’s mother or other Jamaican women she has known.
This is an historical novel, but it’s one of greater literary quality than many books in this genre – I think enhanced in large part by the depth of research Levy has undertaken (and she includes her bibliography at the back) and that she understands the Jamaican patois and the distinctive rhythm of speech – it’s one of those books you can both enjoy and learn from, and I liked it immensely.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Hachette