The Long Song

The Long Song
by Andrea Levy
2011 / 320 pages 
rating – 

 The life story of a woman as written out when she is old and in part with the prompting of  her son,  The Long Song stretches from the days of slavery in Jamaica to the day the old woman’s book was published in 1898.  Her name is July, her skin is dark, her mouth sassy and her troubles and heartaches many as she works in the big house for the plantation owner’s wife who calls her Marguerite.   It is truly the voice of July which carries the book.

The tone for the turbulence of the times is perfect and described accurately,, including the Baptist War,  but with little historical detail and sometimes naming names but mostly not.  The Long Song is definitely  fiction but firmly rooted in historical evidence.  And when you think the story might be over,  because the slaves were emancipated,  it only means there’s a new chapter,  as it certainly doesn’t mean they had anything like freedom.  So the song continues.

The lives of ex-slaves has been a literary topic for years,  but this book is the best to date (except possibly Beloved by Toni Morrison) in part because of  the setting,  Jamaica,  but also because of the strength and power of the narrator.  And who do you believe when it comes to the life of the slaves – Thomas Carlyle  or a poor black ex-slave woman – albeit fictional?  Believe me,  imo, she comes closer.     The Long Song is truly a wonderful work of historical fiction.

But  story-telling is another theme  developed beautifully in a post-modern, metafictional kind of way.  The narrator is telling her own story in third person.  Interesting in and of itself.   The text, which is sprinkled liberally with “Dear reader,”  and  “Now we have to travel to find July…” was jarring at first but towards the end it did become endearing (pardon the pun)  perhaps because of  the times – 1898.   In other places, because it’s a frame story, with  an outer part in 1898,  the narrator springs into first person …  “My son is telling me this is not the truth….”   Some of the plot elements seemed to be from other slave novels from Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) to The Help (Kathryn Stockett).  But how many ways are there to be an ex-slave?

And the rich rhythmical dialect shines – a sample – from page 198 (Kindle):

"Your father was a Scotch man?"

“Oh yes, he be from Scotch Land.”

“Your father was a white man?”

“Oh yes. Me be a mulatto, not a negro.”

“A mulatto?”

“Yes, a mulatto. You must not think me a nigger, for me is a mulatto.” July then waited to witness his esteem.

July’s father was an overseer at the sugarcane plantation. His name was Dewar.

"Was Tam Dewar married to your mother, Miss July?"

What sort of fool-fool question was this? Tell me, reader, did you ever, up to now, hear of an overseer upon a sugar plantation thinking to marry a slave he has befouled? A senseless liar would July be proved if she answered him, “Yes.” And a “No” would surely see this man turn from her …

Then finally, there’s this with the wife of the local baptist minister about the birth of July’s own son, Thomas: “Was your son born in wedlock?”

Jane Kinsman then states that this guileless, naïve and simple negro (these are her words reader, and not my own) did then reply, “No, missus, him was born in de wood — where be wedlock?”

****

I’ll have to see what else I read but this may be on the list of top 10 fictions for the year – if not,  we’ll make a top 10 historical fictions.

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