Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Long Song.
Andrea Levy claims the territory of slavery and rebellion in 19th-century Jamaica with a sure hand and a powerful voice. Now an old woman, July puts pen to paper - with a few editorial corrections by her son, Thomas - revealing a life both enslaved and emancipated, child of a field slave on Amity Plantation. Huge, dark-skinned Kitty gives birth to July, her half-white daughter by the plantation overseer, her brutal life enriched by a curious child so different from the enchanted mother: “What a squeaking, tempestuous, fuss-making child she was.” But when plantation owner Thomas Howarth’s sister arrives from England, July’s fate is altered on a chance encounter when Mrs. Caroline Mortimer snatches the child to train as a house slave, leaving Kitty to suffer her loss without recourse.
Mother and daughter are kept apart until the Great Slave Rebellion (or Baptist War of 1832), during which Kitty is caught up in the chaos, arrested and falsely accused. July witnesses “her mama hung small and black like a ripened pod upon a tree.” While Caroline attempts to civilize her charge, the never-biddable July survives by her wits, dodging the woman’s incessant demands and determination to rename her “Marguerite.” Without opportunity, July remains with Caroline after the rebellion and Howarth’s suicide, freedom remaining just an ugly word to plantation owners resisting the realities of their situation.
July leaves a newborn infant, Thomas, to be raised by a minister and his wife, continuing in Caroline’s household until the woman’s marriage to her new overseer, Robert Goodwin. Goodwin has secretly lusted after July and marries Caroline only to have his fantasies and sexual appetites fulfilled with the slave. True to form, Caroline refuses to acknowledge July’s position as “wife” to Goodwin even after the birth of a daughter, Emily.
Though July’s voice attempts a happier spin on the narrative, the text is surely the old woman’s story, one tinged with the violence of enslavement, substandard living conditions and the usual brutality of plantation life in Jamaica. Shunning painful realities until Thomas demands a more honest accounting, the novel eventually reveals the truth of a mother’s loss, the temporary glory as a white man’s “wife,” and the usual abandonment when Goodwin’s circumstances suggest a return to England. Levy’s voice remains clear and bright, the happy patois of an indomitable protagonist born to adversity but sunny of soul, claiming her history and telling it her way.