Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Book Review - The Long Song by Andrea Levy
The tale herein is all my mama's endeavor.
So says Thomas Kinsman, a Jamaican publisher, who learned his trade in Britain after his mother abandoned him, newborn, on the doorstep of a Baptist missionary. Thomas intends to publish his mother’s book – a memoir – very nicely bound, complete with sugar cane on the cover. However, he and his mother, an octogenarian Jamaican woman named July, who was once a slave on the Amity Plantation, definitely do not see eye-to-eye. Thomas tells us in his Introduction, “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.” For her part, July says she will not waste her time or her readers’ time with descriptions of trees and grass, and that her memoir – The Long Song – will not keep company with books filled with the “puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.”
Slavery is a subject that has inspired the writing of some truly extraordinary books, including two of my all time favorites – Toni Morrison’s magnificent Beloved and Edward P. Jones’ elegant The Known World, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize. The predominating mood of both those books is tragic and melancholic. So I was skeptical when I learned Andrea Levy’s fifth book, The Long Song, was set against the backdrop of Jamaican slavery. After all, Andrea Levy is known for her comedic look at life, and slavery is something so serious that taking a comedic look at it would be akin to blasphemy. However, I didn’t have to read many pages of this life-affirming novel before I knew I need not have worried. And The Long Song really isn’t a “book about slavery.” It’s a book about July.
The Long Song is set in the Jamaica of the 1831 slave rebellion known as the Baptist War and revolves around the then ebullient July. July was born the daughter of an elegant looking slave named Kitty and the plantation’s white overseer, Tam Dewar, a Scotsman, who was more interested in enjoying his strawberry preserves than in his daughter’s birth.
July, as she tells us, was a pretty child, possessing that “whiff of English white,” and it isn’t long before she caught the eye of the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, who renamed July “Marguerite” and takes her into the “big house” to be trained as a lady’s maid. Every day, July hoped and prayed her mother will come to visit her, and every night, Kitty peered through the windows of the big house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Each one never realized that the other is looking for her.
One would think Caroline Mortimer would be a very unsympathetic character, but Levy succeeds in making her just the opposite. Caroline arrived in Jamaica a young, childless widow and one who was definitely not enamored by the harsh household of Amity. When her sister-in-law, the wife of plantation owner, John Howarth, dies in childbirth, Caroline, as John’s sister, becomes the new mistress of Amity. In fact, it’s Caroline who is at the center of, perhaps, the book’s best and most memorable set piece, one that revolves around a lavish Christmas dinner.
Seeking to rouse her brother from the depression that engulfs him after the death of his wife and child, Caroline, with the help of her servants/slaves, and of course, July/Marguerite, who by this time is a young woman, seeks to make the Christmas feast one of unmatched beauty and style. Incongruously, the whole thing falls apart initially because of the price of candles. “It is not that things be expensive,” the diplomatic slave Godfrey tells Caroline, “it is just that you cannot afford them.” Godfrey then proceeds to cover the table, not with the fine linen tablecloths Caroline hoped for, but with an old bed sheet, instead. As things turn out, no one minds the bed sheet. People have more important things to think about when Christmas dinner is interrupted by the first volleys of the Baptist War, and the men leave to fight, while the woman are left cowering amid their finery.
The Long Song, however, is no historical drama, and though Levy has certainly done extensive research on the rebellion, our narrator, July, is more concerned with life at Amity than with politics. During the Christmas feast, July cares little for the rebellion raging outside and is more concerned with sneaking forbidden liquor to the butler’s boy and trading stories about their respective mistresses with the snobbish “quadroon” maid, Clara, over from a neighboring plantation.
We do learn enough about the horrors of the uprising to understand when John Howarth subsequently takes leave of his senses, and July does allow herself to describe the symbolic funeral that marks the end of Jamaican slavery on July 31, 1838. However, our unreliable narrator goes on to inform us that she wasn’t actually present at this symbolic funeral. She was still closeted in Amity with Caroline, the plantation’s new owner, and the story July really wishes to tell is a more personal one – her own.
Though July’s pleased at being emancipated, she’s also upset that she’s been “assigned” a value of only thirty-one pounds, the same value as the “useless, one-eyed” cook who “could kill you with her custard.” It’s not right, July tells us.
After the uprising, it’s July who becomes the intermediary between Robert Goodwin, Caroline’s new husband, and the freed slaves, who want to work, but want to work on their terms, not Robert’s. July’s relationship with both Robert and Caroline forms this novel’s center.
A good looking clergyman’s son who smells of wood smoke, Robert Goodwin has dreams of an agrarian utopia in which the freed slaves can work their own farms and still earn a living working Amity’s fields. It sounds perfect, and maybe it’s too perfect because it never comes to pass. The problem with Robert Goodwin is that his personality, which is quite self-serving, doesn’t allow him to incorporate his lofty ideals into reality, and most of the freed slaves of Amity end up “between a rock and a hard place” in the most literal of ways.
Although Caroline adores her new husband, her new husband only has eyes for July, and it comes as no surprise when July, never one to deny herself something she’d really like to have, refuses to deny herself Robert.
More than once, when working with Thomas, July declares her story told. She wants to concentrate on the good things and avoid remembering the bad. Thomas, however, has other ideas and lets his mother know she needs to tell more. “But reader,” says July, “if your storyteller were to tell of life with July through those times, you would hear no sweet melody but a forbidding discord. You would turn your head away. You would cry lies! You would pass over those pages and beg me lead you to better days.” Thomas, though, exhorts July to make an accurate record of her life, not just a pleasant one.
The Long Song is a cleverly constructed book, and it’s beautifully written. July’s narrative switches between the third person past and the first person present, and there’s a wonderful mix of the Jamaican patois and the more formal English spoken in the Victorian period.
July’s tendency to remember only the good times and her delightful fallibility as a narrator are, for the most part, charming and irresistible, but in some ways, it’s July, herself, who hinders the telling of this tale. Levy can and does stop the action when she wants to insert Thomas’ exhortations of seriousness to July. Most of the time this works very well, though at times, it seems rather strained, and the contrivance of the book becomes all too clear. It’s also something of a problem to see everything through July’s eyes, especially the other characters. We wonder how much the irrepressible July is telling us, and how much she’s not. We wonder if she’s giving some characters credit she shouldn’t be giving and selling others short.
As I said near the beginning of this review, there’s little here of Toni Morrison or Edward P. Jones, and that’s exactly how it should be, at least in this story. Levy’s comedy, which made me skeptical at first since the book’s backdrop is very serious subject matter, works quite well in the telling of July’s story for July is a protagonist possessed of much joie de vivre. In the end, we care greatly about these characters. We lose ourselves in their vivid story, a story that’s as vivid and bold as the Jamaican landscape. In the end, I found The Long Song to be both powerful and playful, and that’s a very rare - and welcome - combination in any book.
Recommended: Definitely, unless the reader finds a light, comedic tone too much of a turn-off is a book whose backdrop is slavery in Jamaica. Remember, though, this isn’t a book about slavery; it’s a book about July.