The Long Song, author Andrea Levy’s fifth book is not to be missed. Levy, the daughter of Jamaican parents and a native of England, writes with such subtle humor and such a singular voice that one almost forgets that the subject is slavery and all the evils that trail in its wake. The Long Song recently won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2011 and film options as well. The novel was also short-listed for the 2011 Booker Prize.
The Long Song is a novel of an autobiography, which is another way of saying that the novel is about the book that a Jamaican slave woman is writing about her life. The slave’s name is July, yes, exactly like the month. The reader is introduced to the autobiography in the novel’s Forward, which is penned by her son, a publisher-editor: “The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story…” The son’s voice occasionally interjects as editor to cajole, correct and encourage, so that their relationship (a miracle in itself) becomes a telling within a telling. July’s story, from her conception as the result of her mother’s rape, to the revolt of Jamaican slaves, to the aftermath of the end of slavery in Jamaica, to the every explanation for the writing of her story, is told in a voice not heard since Kunta Kinte in Roots. July’s voice is old, it is music and it is the long song.
The author writes of Jamaican slavery, not American, and the comparisons inevitably sought by American readers will be easily recognized. But there are differences, mostly belonging to the farmers, the slave owners from the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Ireland. The fact that Jamaica is an island of only 4,242 square miles with owners and slaves alike isolated from the rest of the world, say compared to Mississippi, 48,434 square miles and surrounded by other slave states, only intensifies the differences.
What mother does not have her secrets? But what trust to reveal those secrets to her son, who reminds her that ”words have a power that can nevertheless cower even the largest man to gibberish.” Levy’s gift as a writer is startling and powerful as when July is taken from her mother by the sister of her owner. “Oh, she’s adorable,” Caroline said again. “Can I take her?” She is not addressing July’s mother, she is asking her brother who answers, “Yes, if she’ll amuse you.” No screaming, no tears from July’s mother, she is simply taken, like picking out a piece of candy.
July’s tale of abuse, of love and hate, abandonment, despair, humility and courage, is as fresh as slavery is old. This novel is a sequel to Levy’s previous novel, Small Island, (winner of the Whitebread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction) and I for one, based on The Long Song, won’t hesitate to read it out of order.