Between the Covers
The Long Song
“Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.” So begins July’s frequently witty and relentlessly shocking account of her life on the Jamaican sugar plantation, Amity. Born into slavery in the early 1800s, July would once have been ‘put to the lash’ for wielding a pen. Now a justifiably snaky, proud and irreverent old woman, her British-educated son anxiously hovers over her as she writes.
Andrea Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents. She began writing the books she had “always wanted to read” in her mid-thirties. Her fourth novel Small Island won multiple awards. The Long Song also demonstrates remarkable skill, weaving in the terrible realities of slavery with a vibrant and inspiring narrative.
I suspect The Long Song hooks us in because all the characters are flawed. Everyone is looking out for themselves in increasingly tumultuous circumstances. July is a spirited survivor, but she is also likeable. Fathered by a drunken Scotsman, she is plucked from her slave mother’s side for the ‘amusement’ of the new mistress of Amity, Caroline Mortimer. Renamed Marguerite, July becomes Caroline’s maid, tending her pillow, ironing her fiddly petticoats, calming her fears on being trumped by the neighbours and listening to her rants on the “negro problem”.
Like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Levy plunges us into the busy kitchens where jealousies rage as “turtle served in the shell”, beef, ducks, pork, cheese, vegetable soups and plum puddings are prepared for the “fatty-batty” masters’ Christmas feast. While the guests loll at the table, the plantation musicians fail to deliver ‘civilised music.’ A few moments later the musicians produce flawless renditions, having tired of deliberately annoying their masters.
This is the joy of expertly researched and deftly written historical fiction. We hear voices traditionally silenced. The details are rich but unobtrusive. The language is poetic and rhythmic. The plot hums along. The dialogue is believable. Familiarity is finely balanced with foreignness.
“So come, reader, worry no more upon my son’s rudeness, just follow me close,” July says. Gladly – but tentatively – I followed her as she forged a passionate and precarious relationship with Caroline’s new God-fearing husband, Robert Goodwin, in a basement room at Amity.
Both witness to and participant in the official ending of slavery, July’s ‘long song’ is an important and illuminating journey of heartache, courage, brutality, ingenuity, oppression and comparative freedom.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.