‘The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy


2010, 310 p.

After reading the very dissatisfying, Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question, I mused that if that won the prize, then the rest of the 2010 Shortlist must have been duds.  Not so.  Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is much the better book, and unlike Finkler, which I am sure will sink into literary oblivion, it’s an important book as well.

Levy’s earlier book Small Island, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Orange Prize in 2004-5  is an important book too, in terms of framing and claiming British West Indian identity in modern Britain.  The Long Song follows in this tradition, but takes a step further back to early 19th century Apprentice-Era Jamaica.   For us, in our policy-comprised times, it’s an interesting era:  the Apprenticeship scheme was a political ‘fix’ that ostensibly abolished slavery in British colonies by introducing ‘slavery-lite’.  The Apprenticeship System, as it was known, transformed former slaves into compulsory ‘apprentices’ who would work set hours on their former masters’ plantations for six years (although as it happened, the apprenticeship period ended earlier than that).   It was a highly unpopular measure, strong-armed into legislation by the British government using the stick of executive action if the colonies didn’t create their own enabling legislation locally , and the carrot of ‘compensation’ payments that flowed, not to the slaves, but to the proprietors of the plantations.  But it did very little to change the basic  relations between masters who were able to leverage power through rents and working hours, and their ‘apprentices’ whose ‘freedom’ consisted of merely a quarter of their own time.

Levy uses an interesting structure for this book.  The fly-leaf opens with an explanation:

You do not know me yet but I am the narrator of this work.  My son Thomas, who is printing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages.  As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

The narrator, July, was born in Jamaica, the daughter of a field slave Kitty as the result of a rape by an overseer.  July was taken from her mother by Caroline Mortimer, a white woman from the ‘big house’ on the plantation and renamed ‘Marguerite’.  The pattern of forced sex and maternal loss continued into the next generation.  July’s son, Thomas, learned his trade in Britain after July left him as an infant on the minister’s doorstep.  That same Thomas,  Jamaican publisher-editor in 1898,  then writes his own foreword:

The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.  My mama had a story- a story that lay so far within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.  Her intention was that, once knowing the tales, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters.  And so it would go on….

I explained to my dear mama, once spoken these precious words of hers would be lost to all but my ears.  If, though, committed to a very thin volume, I could peruse her tale at my leisure and no word would be lost when my fickle mind strayed to some other purpose.  And better, for the excess books which would be produced from the press could be given for sale, taken around the island so others, far and wide, might delight in her careful narration…

…So I was able to assure my precious mama that I would be her most conscientious editor.  I would raise life out of her most crabbed script to make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language.  And there was no shame to be felt from this assistance, for at some of the best publishing houses in Britain- let me cite Thomas Nelson and Son, or Hodder and Stoughton, as my example- the gentle aiding and abetting of authors in this manner is quite common place.

And so the book is the gentle, good natured to-and-fro of mother and son, jointly constructing the story: the mother July with her humour and resilience;  the editor son with his careful, somewhat stilted prose.  I loved it when July’s voice took up the story again, as if a nudge to remind me that it is her story after all.  And all the pomposity of Thomas’ voice would drop away, at times, when the sheer humanity of the story became overwhelming.  It’s wonderful, well-sustained writing.

The energy  and inventiveness of  Levy’s  narrative voice obscures the fact that this deceptively-easy book is actually very well researched indeed.  In her acknowledgments she lists the historians and other writers who have assisted her, and a list of 16 sources, both primary and secondary, that she drew upon in writing this book.   I’ve read several of them myself, and when I see their traces  here, and the use she has made of them,  it only increases my admiration for the fictional power of this book.

Take, for example, this description of the manuring process as part of plantation production, from Burn’ s very good  history Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies:

When the holes had been prepared manure was placed in them and on top of the manure a few shovelfuls of light mould. (p. 42).

And here is Levy:

Some of this mess is taken from the pen to be shovelled into baskets and slung either side of a mule.  The mule then, unaware of the load it carries, trots off as happy with this weight as with any other.  But the wicker dung-baskets- overflowing and spilling- that Kitty carried to the cane pieces of Dover, Virgo, or even as far as Scarlett Pondes, were borne in the way of most slave-burdens, upon her head.  The weight was no sufferance, for Kitty could carry much heavier, much further.  Come, it is true, the smell would see our white missus faint clean away with just one sniff.  But the Lord, in making the nose, fashioned a shrewd organ; although so renk that upon Kitty’s first breaths the solid odour did choke her at the throat, after mighty cough and a few strong inhalations, all the air about Kitty, be it sweet or bitter, came to smell like shit, so the offence was lost… And if this dung did find its way into her eyes- for the brown juice from this waste matter did ooze through the weave of the basket to slipslide all down Kitty’s face- then, oh! Its sting did well up such tears as to leave her blind (p. 123).

I think that Levy’s book exemplifies all the good in historical fiction:  lightly worn research;  fidelity to the voice and perspective of primary sources (with all their flaws);  characters and dialogue bounded by and consistent with knowledge at the time;  a plausible plot, and imagination and creativity in its narrative framing.  As for the Booker?  Levy was robbed.

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