The line between slave and master wasn’t black and white. The relationship was often intimate and certainly co-dependent. Yet at the same time each existed in a totally distinct reality that simply could not be understood by the other. That’s one of the things I realized after finishing The Long Song. It’s the novel I’ve been reading here in Jamaica. Written by Andrea Levy and short listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize it is set in the period just before and after the end of slavery. An elderly black woman named July is encouraged to write down her life story by her son who opens the first printing press in Kingston Jamaica. He promises he will print her book and distribute it.
July was born a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation but became literate after the master of her plantation committed suicide and July was needed to help with the day- to- day operations of the family business. To facilitate this her mistress teaches July the rudiments of reading and writing and July is a quick learner.
July is reunited with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters after they have spent decades apart. She wants to write a novel to share a romanticized version of her life story with her family. Her son however keeps pestering her to stick more closely to the truth and at his insistence she does.
Much of The Long Song is difficult to read. July and her mother are raped by white men and July is separated from both of her babies. The brutal murder of rebellious slaves and their torture in plantation dungeons is described in a way that leaves little to the imagination. Having said that, July is a comedic narrator and her wry observations, sense of mischief and forthright opinions make the reader smile over and over again. I laughed out loud in a scene where July gets revenge on her master. She knows he is deathly afraid of cockroaches so she arranges for him to lift the lid on a serving dish at dinner that she has filled with hundreds of the creatures. I found July to be a convincing, complex and fallible heroine who stubbornly shoved her way into my heart.
The book shows how the Jamaican Baptist church led the campaign to free the slaves but also illustrates how even the most fervent abolitionists sometimes found it hard to treat black people as true equals.
I read an enhanced version of The Long Song in I- Books which includes photographs and audio by the author describing the places she visited in Jamaica to do research for the book.
I want to visit a plantation house yet before we leave to explore what a possible setting for The Long Song might have looked like. The years of slavery in Jamaica have left an indelible mark on the island that is still felt today and The Long Song gives the reader a greater understanding of that.
Other books about women who are a force to be reckoned with………