Book review: 'The Long Song,' by Andrea Levy

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By Tayari Jones
Saturday, May 8, 2010


By Andrea Levy

Farrar Straus Giroux. 313 pp. $26

Andrea Levy's insightful and inspired fifth novel, "The Long Song," reminds us that she is one of the best historical novelists of her generation. By employing a charming metafictional conceit -- a printer is publishing the memoir of his mother, July -- we witness the extraordinary life of a woman who lived as a slave in Jamaica during the 19th century.

As is often the case in novels about slavery, one major theme is the power of storytelling. Of his mother's writing, the printer explains, "Although shy of the task at first, after several months she soon became quite puffed up, emboldened to the point where my advice often fell on to ears that remained deaf to it." Indeed, at the start, July apologizes for the "indelicate" introduction of her story: a description of the rape of her mother by a plantation overseer. In the context of the last few years of publishing, which has brought us "The Hemingses of Monticello," "The Book of Night Women," "A Mercy," "Wench" and the blockbuster "The Help," this apology seems almost quaint. Disquieting images of black female servitude -- both domestic and sexual -- are hardly shocking.

Levy's previous novel, "Small Island," is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and with "The Long Song" she has returned to the level of storytelling that earned her the Orange Prize in 2004. Her heroine narrates the beginning of the end of slavery in Jamaica, coming to a climax with the 1831 Baptist War, when enslaved men and women fought their enslavers for 10 days. It's clear that Levy has done her research, but this work never intrudes upon the narrative, which travels at a jaunty pace. Levy's sly humor swims just under the surface of the most treacherous waters. (For example, a shocking suicide is preceded by a delightful farce.) Her refusal to reduce her characters to merely their suffering does not trivialize the experience of enslavement, but underscores the humanity of all involved.

Though Levy's sparkling voice is all her own, she still covers familiar ground. The biracial heroine's love triangle with her mistress and her mistress's husband bears an echo of Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone." Further, the caste system of the house and field servants has been a mainstay of neo-slave narratives since Margaret Walker's "Jubilee." Even the fact that July is called "Marguerite" by her mistress brings to mind the renaming of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley's "Roots."

But what separates "The Long Song" from many American reimaginings of slavery is its Jamaican setting. As in most Caribbean slave states, Jamaica's enslaved population far outnumbered the English enslavers. The newly transplanted English, like July's mistress, were dependent on their slaves for help acclimating to life on the island. As a result, there is a constant shifting of power at the center of all of the relationships on the plantation.

One of the most complex and revealing moments in "The Long Song" is the dinner party in which the servants are told to prepare an English-style Christmas feast, though few of the menu items are available. This wonderful chapter, a sly glance at Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby," marks the beginning of the end of slavery on Jamaica. Up until this point, resistance on Amity plantation is mostly passive-aggressive. When the mistress of the house complains about the cost of candles, her manservant explains, "It is not that things be expensive, it is just that you can not afford them." This earns the servant a blow to the face, but the victory is his. By the end of the Christmas feast, this psychological push-back pales as a full-scale slave rebellion is at hand.

July not only reports what happened, but in the telling realizes her own role in history. For a less personal account, she directs readers to a pamphlet called "Conflict and change. A view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire." Then she adds that if you prefer this account to her own, "away with you -- for I no longer wish you as my reader." This seems to be Levy's own message. "The Long Song" is a novel for those who believe that the story of a single woman is a story of the ages, for those who understand that a slave woman's history is History, indeed.

Jones is the author of "Leaving Atlanta" and "The Untelling."

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