The Long Song

I’ve recommended Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island many times since I’ve read it, and I’ve wanted to read more of her books but (as usual) never got around to it. Her death back in February put her back on my radar, so I decided to read her final novel, The Long Song. The book is the life story of a Jamaican woman named July, born into slavery and now writing her story at the urging of her son, who owns a printing company and keeps urging her mother to shape her story in the way that he sees fit. July resists:

Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire.

As it turns out, though, July needs her son’s encouragement to tell some of the more painful truths she has to share. Because as forthright as she might be, she also wants to present happy endings, and those are hard to find in her story.

July was born to a field slave named Kitty on Amity Plantation, and different stories were told about her birth. When she was a child, Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner, chose her to come work in the house as her personal servant. July remains with Caroline through the 1831 slave revolt and even after the enslaved are granted freedom. Her reasoning for staying is never made clear, although I got the impression that it was simply more comfortable and easier than leaving would have been. She certainly doesn’t have any particular loyalty toward Caroline, who she writes about with scorn for her plumpness and helplessness.

Their relationship becomes further complicated by the arrival of a new overseer, the handsome Robert Gibson, who catches the eye of both women. Gibson was against slavery, and now that it has been abolished, he intends to make Amity a pleasant place for the newly freed people to work, earning income in the sugarcane fields to pay the modest rents for their homes and plots of land on the plantation. He also falls deeply in love in July but feels that it would be wrong for him to act on it, even though July seems more than willing.

Of course, the relationship and Gibson’s great plans don’t turn out as he intended, and when placed under pressure, he doesn’t turn out to be the man he initially appeared. I kept thinking about The Book of Night Women, another story of an overseer and an enslaved woman in love. In this case, July was technically free, but the power differential is always there. Robert, as a white man, is in charge of how everything goes, between him and July, between him and Caroline, and between July and Caroline.

Much of this book is about people seeking power, not just slavers over the enslaved, but rich over less rich, lighter-skinned over darker-skinned, skilled over unskilled, attractive over unattractive. Everyone is looking for a way to gain just a little bit of power and status over others, because that power and status is what saves them from starvation and disaster. And by telling this story, in her way, July herself is asserting power, as is her son in taking charge of the telling. And maybe, in doing so, they’ll be able to snatch back a bit of what they’ve lost. Maybe. But maybe a different story was told for too long, and there’s no way to restore what’s gone.

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