Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

At the heart of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel The Long Song is the matter of who has the right to tell one’s history. Historians have always wrested that responsibility for themselves and often in the service of telling stories that glorify wars and national and industrial leaders. What is often not told are the stories that embarrass us, shame us, stories that dig behind the myths and platitudes for the uglier truths. The Long Song digs deep and insists, if not demands, that those whose history is often forgotten and ignored must tell those stories themselves, even at the cost of their own psyche.

Written in the confident voice of July, a young slave who grows up on a Jamaican sugar plantation, The Long Song covers the spectrum of English slavery in the Caribbean, the brutality many of the slaves faced under the hands of their masters and the arduous work itself and the resources they used in order to survive.

Born to a field slave named Kitty, July grows up to become a pretty and charming child who is taken away from her mother by the recently transplanted English widow, Caroline Mortimer. Renamed Marguerite, July grows up to be a resourceful and cunning young woman under the Amity household where she is Mortimer’s personal maid, enduring her mistress’s vain and flighty whims, while seeking her own self-pride and desires. Caught under the winds of change, first with the Baptist War, in which a slave rebellion breaks out in Jamaica, and eventually the end of slavery, July struggles to maintain her sense of equilibrium in a world that devalues her as a black woman. When a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, arrives in Amity, July’s life takes an unexpected turn and is forever marred by this encounter.

While July is certainly victimized as so many of her fellow enslaved workers, she herself is not a victim, but a deeply flawed woman struggling to survive. Her attitudes toward race and skin color are no doubt shaped by the racist system under which she lives, compromising the choices she is forced to make, whether it is to leave her newborn son with a recently murdered freeman on the doorstep of Baptist missionaries or to begin a disastrous love affair with the new overseer. And yet Levy clearly reveals how slavery brutalizes those who are caught under its yoke. July, despite her flaws, is a remarkably indomitable spirit, whose unique voice empowers this tale.

Levy, whose novel Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction, uses the conceit of the slave narratives that were used by abolitionists to argue against slavery. Told as autobiography, The Long Song fully captures the voice of an island woman and creates an intimacy between storyteller and reader that immediately pulled me in. Throughout the story, which July tells as an old woman, she is urged by her son Thomas Kinsman, to tell it as honestly as possible, even when July herself wishes to sweeten her tale. Here Levy asks the question: if we are to tell our own stories what obligation do we have to be honest, even at all costs? Levy doesn’t fully answer this question for even she allows her narrator the dignity to mask some of the more painful events of her life. Yet one thing is certain, as Levy reveals throughout the novel, that if left in the hands of others, our stories will either be ignored or bastardized.

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