The Long Song / Andrea Levy

As impressed as I was by Small Island, The Long Song sealed the deal, providing proof of Andrea Levy’s talents as a writer.  In her follow-up to prize-winning Small Island, the reader is introduced to the story’s narrator, Miss July, the child of a field slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  The life story she tells is not always straightforward; she often tries to sidestep its darker aspects, only to be brought back in line with the editorial assistance of her son, Thomas.  Her narrative switches between a third-person past and a first-person present.  She was conceived, she reveals, when the plantation’s overseer forces himself upon her mother.  As a young girl, her beauty attracts the attention of Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation’s owner.  Separated from her mother, Miss July becomes a house slave and is renamed Marguerite.  She soon becomes indispensible to her mistress during the dark days of the island’s slave rebellion of 1832.  During this time she also becomes pregnant with Thomas, who she will leave on the doorstep of Baptist missionaries in hopes that he can have a better upbringing than she can give him.  After the British crown abolish slavery in 1834, a new overseer arrives on the plantation.  Robert Goodwin is the son of an English clergyman and fired with a sense of idealism.  He is also strongly attracted to Miss July and takes her as a mistress, which leads to the birth of another child.  But while Goodwin opposed slavery, he is intent on insuring the now-freed slaves continue to work for him at low wages, with few days off.  This ultimately will lead to tragedy both for the plantation and Miss July personally.   The book is peppered with humor and spiced with earthy Jamaican patois.  Some will be disturbed by Miss July’s attitude regarding her status of being a superior “mulatto” rather than a “negro.”  But that is what I liked most about the book; none of the characters came off as feeling “politically correct.”  The history Levy is writing here is based on actual events, and her characters seem just as real.  This book proves that the promise of Small Island was fully justified.  Both books deserve a place on any reader’s nightstand.


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