When Thomas Kinsman asks his mother, July, to write her memoirs, she agrees on the condition that she is allowed to tell her story the way she wants to tell it:
“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.”
The island with the lush green trees, raucous birds and hot sun is Jamaica, where July is born into slavery on the sugar plantation of Amity. As a young girl, July catches the eye of her master’s spoiled and selfish sister, Caroline Mortimer, and becomes her maid and companion. Kept apart from her mother, a field slave, and renamed ‘Marguerite’ because Caroline likes the name, life is not always easy for July but the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 brings hope that slavery in Jamaica will soon come to an end. And with the arrival of a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, life at Amity could be about to change forever…
I have read other books about slavery but never one that focused specifically on slavery in Jamaica, so The Long Song was something new for me. With July moving from the slave quarters to live with her mistress, we see how slavery and its abolition affected not just the slaves themselves but also the British slave owners and overseers. I liked the fact that July’s story does not just finish with the end of slavery in Jamaica but goes on to describe what happened after that. It’s easy to imagine that things improved instantly as soon as slavery was abolished but that was not necessarily true and July does a good job of showing us how she and the other newly emancipated slaves continued to face hardships and obstacles.
As you’ll be able to tell from the excerpt I quoted at the start of this post, July has a very strong and distinctive narrative style, which suits her lively, mischievous personality. She frequently breaks off in the middle of a chapter to argue with her son, Thomas, over what should or should not be included and at other times she addresses the reader directly. Sometimes she gives us one version of events, then admits that she is not being honest and begins again with a more truthful account. Most of her story is told in the third person, as if July was just somebody she had once known and not actually herself – maybe we’re supposed to assume this made it easier for the older July to discuss the painful things that had happened to her? She also adds a lot of humour to her story which makes it feel much lighter and less harrowing than it could have been.
At first I was intrigued by July’s unique narration; it felt different and unusual. After a few chapters, though, the novelty wore off and I started to find it irritating. I wished she would stop interrupting herself and get on with telling the story! I like this sort of writing in Victorian novels but in this case I thought it felt like a gimmick that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I did still enjoy the book but maybe I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been written in a more conventional style. I have a copy of one of Andrea Levy’s other books to read – Small Island, which is being reissued in a new 10th anniversary edition – and I’ve heard it’s very different, so I’m looking forward to reading that one.