The Long Song by Andrea Levy
|The Long Song by Andrea Levy|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Funny, captivating snapshot of Jamaica at the time of the Baptist Wars and as seen through the eyes of a mischievous, resilient, original woman you won't forget in a hurry.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: February 2010|
|Publisher: Headline Review|
|External links: Author's website|
July's tale, The Long Song, opens with her mother Kitty's rape by Amity plantation's overseer, Tam Dewar. Nine months later, we find him striking the midwife who can't keep Kitty quiet during labour. And Kitty doesn't keep hold of her daughter for very long. Spotted by Caroline, the plantation owner's widowed sister on the side of the road, July is taken away from her mother to become a lady's maid. Deprived of both parent and name - Caroline renames her Marguerite - July learns how to avoid her mistress's needle stick punishments and finds a place among the other house servants.
You might not see this as much of a setting for a comedy of manners, but this is what Andrea Levy gives us in The Long Song. July's story is set in Jamaica just before and just after the emancipation of slaves and during the Baptist War. The white people are presented, by and large, as ludicrous, and none more ludicrous than July's mistress, Caroline Mortimer with her big-big batty and her talent for self-deception. The slaves spend their days cheerfully subverting their owners by pretending stupidity. Musicians caterwaul at dinner parties but play sublimely at slave gatherings afterwards. Sheets find their way onto dining tables in place of the Irish linen, and embarrass the hosts.
But of course, underneath it all runs the excruciating cruelty of slavery. Women are casually raped. All are flogged for insolence. Rebels are burned out of their homes and hung. And the pro-emancipation Baptist pastor is tarred and feathered by plantation owners. Even the "good" white man, Robert Goodwin, shows a very unpleasant character when push comes to economic shove. Because it's all about money after all.
July, speaking to us as an old lady via her anxious, socially self-conscious son, treads her way through it all with ebullience. She's a wonderful character - outspoken, blunt, clever, short-tempered, insolent and even bawdy at times, and she dominates the book. She revels in taunting her readers with hints at an unreliable narration, but we never doubt the core of truth in her relations. She makes us laugh and she tells us off and she despairs of her fussy son. She's absolutely unforgettable and it seems to me that Levy is presenting her as the foundation of the vibrant, vivid society that is Jamaica today. And an inestimable founder she is too.
The Long Song is a clever, captivating book. Will it win the Booker? It's certainly in with a shot.
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