Her mother, bending over double, hacked with her cane bill into a thick stem of cane. [...]
So intent was she upon seeing that the weeping cane was stripped of its leaves - even in the dampening rain its brittle edges flew around her like thistledown - that she did not notice she had just dropped a child from her womb. July was born right there - slipping out to fall bloody and quivering upon a spiky layer of trash.
This is the first novel by Andrea Levy that I've read, although her name was vaguely familiar to me before. The original reason why I grabbed this book from the library was that it was one of the Booker Prize nominees this year (although it didn't win). I'm glad I did read this, it's a brilliant book with language that is nothing short of amazing.
The Long Song is written in the form of a memoir and the narrator takes on a very prominent role from the beginning of the novel. As soon as you open the front cover of the book, you see the following text:
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 begins to tell the story of July, a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the early 19th century. July is taken from her mother at a young age and brought up to be a house slave to her mistress, Caroline Mortimer, who has freshly arrived from England. The story is told exclusively from July's perspective, but the narrative is beautifully crafted to include anecdotes and small stories that compete with July's tale. The novel is really about the art of storytelling. It takes the reader to a completely different atmosphere and carefully constructs the setting, the time and the characters to make them seem so alive, so real.
One of the most amazing things about the novel is its language. The vocabulary and sentence structures imitate the Jamaican Creole language. Especially the spoken language and dialogue between the slaves is incredibly written: "This be Miss Kitty's pickney, Miss July. Me did pull her with me own hand 'pon this world. Miss Kitty's pickney - Miss Kitty's pickney has come home."
The novel follows the progress of the end of slavery in Jamaica. As the English plantation owners and overseers desperately try to maintain some of their authority over their workers, the Jamaican slaves are granted freedom. Yet this does not stop them from being treated as second-class citizens. Having "black blood" in your family meant you were not "white" - hence you could not enjoy the same privileges in society as white people. The novel explains the system of labelling people according to their black heritage:
Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroom; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino... oh, the mustiphino's child with a white man for a papa, will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person.
The novel is a colourful picture of a time and place that I was not familiar with before. It is somehow similar to Toni Morrison's novels, although the setting is different. It gives a shocking image of systematically practiced slavery and inequality that justified itself on racism - a social system that existed between people of different races and skin colours just a couple hundred years ago.
Andrea Levy herself says that the inspiration for writing the novel came from the idea that there is no reason for people of Jamaican heritage to feel ashamed of their slave ancestors. On the contrary: "If our ancestors survived the slave ships they were strong. If they survived the plantations they were clever." But the novel does not stereotype, it does not portray slaves as innocent victims and slave-owners as purely evil and violent. Each side has multiple stories to tell, and July's story is just one of them.
Finally, I can't believe that none of Andrea Levy's novels have been translated into Finnish!
Andrea Levy: The Long Song. Headline Review. 2010
Guardian: The Long Song
The Telegraph: The Long Song
The New York Times: "When Jamaica Lost Its Chains"
Buy The Long Song from The Book Depository