On occasion I read books that I feel wholly unqualified to review – I don’t have an English degree, I’m not a teacher or a librarian, I just love books. The Long Song by Andrea Levy, a 2010 Man Booker Prize finalist now out in paperback, falls into this category.
The Long Song opens with a note to the reader from Richard Kinsman, a Jamaican printer whose mama has decided she wants to get her story down on paper. Her story starts with a slave named Kitty giving birth to a baby girl on a sugar plantation; she first tells the story of legend, involving July falling out of her mama as she continues to hack away at the sugar cane, and then tells of the actual birth in Kitty’s tiny shack. It then jumps ahead to Kitty and July, now 9 years old, walking down the road when the plantation owner and his sister Caroline, newly arrived from England, come upon them. Caroline thinks July is “adorable” so she takes her home to be her personal slave, where she decides July is not a real name and starts calling her Marguerite. The house slaves and the field slaves never come in contact with each other, so July is ripped apart from her mama. We jump forward again one more time to July at age 19, and also the beginning of the end of slavery in Jamaica. July’s position is a pretty good one, as her mistress never beats or whips her, and she quickly learns the crafty skills needed to serve her mistress. A new overseer gains the attention of both Caroline and July and sets forth events in motion that alter both the plantation and July’s life forever.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that July is Richard’s mama, and the story she is telling is her own. What’s not so obvious is who the reader is intended to be. July is telling her story for several reasons: for her son to learn some details of her life she’s never been able to tell him; so she can reach closure before her life ends; for others to know what she considers the truth. The novel switches voice, starting with Richard telling the reader why the book is to be written, then to July telling the reader not to mind her son, finally to July telling the story. July is an unreliable narrator, making it difficult to separate the true story from July’s exaggeration.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Long Song and have added it to our Five Star Reads. July’s voice is unique, charming and humorous, both while telling her story and in her descriptions of living with her son and his family. The book ends in a sort of cliffhanger and I have high hopes that a sequel is soon to follow.
Nancy is a fan of historical fiction that takes her out of her comfort zone. She writes about her boys, books and life in Colorado at Life With My Boys and Books.