A slave’s life, unbound

Novel unfolds Jamaican woman’s pain, undaunted joie de vivre

A sugar cart on a road in Jamaica, where for centuries sugar was a major crop and slaves the main source of labor. A sugar cart on a road in Jamaica, where for centuries sugar was a major crop and slaves the main source of labor. (Jamaica Tourist Board)
By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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“Why must I dwell upon sorrow?’’ asks the narrator at the end of Andrea Levy’s fifth novel. “Perhaps . . . upon some other day there may come a person who would wish to tell the chronicle of those times anew. But I am an old-old woman. And, reader, I have not the ink.’’

The speaker is July, narrator and heroine in the fullest sense of the word of “The Long Song.’’ Born on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the early 19th century, daughter of a field slave called Kitty and the plantation’s brutish Scottish overseer, July lives through the last two decades of slavery, the chaotic and violent time of manumission, and the difficult first decades of freedom. Such a life holds plenty of sorrow. If we read in order to enlarge our experience to go somewhere in place, or time, or the human heart that we could not go on our own, we might expect to find this novel exhausting, horrifying, depressing. Instead, “The Long Song’’ leaves its reader (a personage frequently addressed by July) with a newly burnished appreciation for life, love, and the pursuit of both. How? Levy conveys July’s experience in the way recommended by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.’’

July writes down her life story at the insistence of her son, Thomas Kinsman, whom she left outside the door of the Baptist minister shortly after his birth. Thomas was subsequently raised in England. Returning to Jamaica a successful publisher, he finds his birth mother — now middle-aged, impoverished, and ailing — and takes her into his home in Kingston. It is Thomas who offers us, with an introduction and an afterward, July’s completed manuscript.

Framing the narrative in this way reflects Levy’s hopes for the novel. In an interview in The Guardian, Levy tells the story of being at a conference on the legacy of slavery and having someone in the audience ask: How can I be proud of my Jamaican roots, when my ancestors were slaves? Of Jamaican ancestry herself, Levy said she set out to answer that question. Her research turned up almost no accounts in which the enslaved speak for themselves. Here, as Levy has said in interviews, is where fiction comes into its own. It was within her power to “put back the voices that were left out.’’

July plays with us, and with the conventions of storytelling, from the outset. Having begun with a matter-of-fact paragraph describing the rape that resulted in her conception, she immediately interrupts herself. “Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement . . .. consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way.’’ She’s not going to give us a catalog of the sights, sounds, and smells of island life, she warns then lists, in vivid sensory language, all the things she’s not going to mention. A rhetorical gimmick favored by Cicero, this plants a rich field of sensory impressions in the reader’s mind while the speaker’s interest is elsewhere.

July’s many ways of telling it slant keep us off balance and refresh our engagement with her story. She presents an event in passionately conveyed, hands-on detail — her own birth, for example — then, when we’re completely captivated, jettisons it and bounces us into accepting a different version. Alternatively, she offers a litany of questions. “Would you like me to describe the lesions upon [Patience’s] back and let you hear the woebegone howl she emitted when the stinking cloth that had wrapped the wound was pulled off? Perhaps you would care to watch her die. Or see the anguish that so clouded Miss Hannah’s soul that she crawled into her grave two days after Patience. Shall we walk in the procession of these two burials?’’ “Oh, no’’ we can say, because she has just shown us those very things and our readerly hypocrisy makes us feel how hard it is to tell her story. At other times, July simply trusts us with her pain: “If July had known then — as Godfrey, straight-backed atop the cart, slid that lumbering buggy along the path into the pink-purple mist of the morning— that she would never see Mr. Godfrey again, then perhaps — oh, reader, perhaps — July may have raised her hand to wave him goodbye.’’

Sly July knows how to manipulate her reader as well as she knows how to manipulate her white masters. We laugh because it’s such fun to see her in action. We forgive them because telling it slant, like a pinhole projector for viewing a solar eclipse, makes our experience of July’s experience bearable. Through all her trials July’s joie de vivre shines. Her mother wears a hand-me-down skirt “whispering its former luster’’; a drop of snot hangs from her mistress’s nose “like a rain drop caught upon the tip of a leaf’’; when her master embraces her he feels “hot as a bread oven’’ and his knuckles shine “white as hen’s eggs.’’

Before she began this novel, Levy questioned whether anyone could write about slavery “without it turning into a harrowing tale of violence and misery.’’ “The Long Song’’ is her answer.

Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’ She can be reached through her website,

By Andrea Levy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 313 pp., $26