The Long Song

Author: Andrea LevyPublisher: Picador

The Long Song is a vibrant, fictitious ‘autobiographical’ novel that visits the darkest corners of the slave trade in Jamaica with a bagful of wit and wry humour. July, the story’s main narrator, describes the ridiculous habits and brutalities of the colonial invaders at Amity, while telling her own life story; born into slavery on one of the plantations in Jamaica and separated from her mother Kitty at an early age.

July is clearly a strong-willed, cynical character, yet in her own story she describes her younger self as innocent, naïve, and sometimes a bit cheeky.  Her story is told chronologically and begins with her mother’s rape by one of the white colonials. It is literally the start of July’s existence and shows how Kitty is a strong and admirable woman. Levy’s talent of using comedy to show the strength of the two heroines is overtly present in the book, and is also used to describe July’s birth:

“July was born upon a cane piece. Her mother, bending over double, hacked with her cane bill into a thick stem of cane. […] Weary, she straightened to let the fierce torrent of raindrops that were falling run their cooling relief upon her face and neck. […] Then she stooped to grab the base of the cane once more to strike it with a further blow.”

One of the novel’s most vibrant passages – almost like a dream sequence – is the description of Kitty running towards her long-lost daughter, having heard that she is in danger. While houses are burned, hands chopped off and children scalded by hot water, Kitty runs towards the Mill to save July.  This scene is the moment of revenge; revenge on the invaders, and on Kitty’s rapist, July’s father, who is found dead the next morning.  Although Kitty is hanged for this crime, July makes sure that in her memory, and in history, her mother remains an innocent victim of the slave trade.

The Long Song not only deals with racism and colonialism but also discusses inter-racial prejudices, with July struggling to come to terms with her ancestral past as a ‘mulatto’. As a result of her ambivalence towards her son, who she believes will be disadvantaged in life due to his parentage, she gives him up for adoption. However, he will become her saviour and last resort, and will also be the one who commissions her life story.

Although July is a controlling narrator, she frequently apologizes to the reader and to her son for telling such stories. Luckily, the horrors of the slave trade are leavened somewhat by the humorous but dignified way the story is told, and her concern for others while maintaining a strong sense of duty makes her character even more likeable. When she steps away from the main narrative to describe her grandchildren’s silly habits and frivolities, she compares them to those of the lady who ‘owned’ her for most of her adolescent life. This is a sad reminder that although July now lives in a good home, she will never be able to forget her troubled past. Perhaps by writing down her story, she will finally find peace.

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