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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth published novel, and her first since her award-winning novel of 2004, Small Island, a story of Jamaican migrants to Britain in 1948. In her latest novel, Andrea Levy takes us back to Jamaica in the early 1830s, on the eve of the end of slavery.

The central character and narrator of the story is July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation, the daughter of a female slave raped by Tom Dewar, the plantation's brutish Scottish overseer. While still a child, July is taken by the owner of the plantation on a whim of his fat complacent small-minded sister, Caroline Mortimer, to be her personal slave.

The story is punctuated by frequent instances of casual brutality - the whip, rape, manacles, thuggery - imposed by owners and their agents to enforce property rights and compel obedience, all done (without any sense of irony) to correct what the owners saw as the slaves' savagery, immorality and defiance of God's will. It is not hard to accept Andrea Levy's portrayal of the people who participated and acquiesced in this exploitation as being at best crassly insensitive mediocrities (such as Caroline Mortimer) and at worst vicious thugs (such as Tom Dewar).

Though they might seem themselves as enlightened, civilised gentlefolk, the white inhabitants of Jamaica are portrayed as shallow, exploitative and vicious when their interests are threatened, their lowest instincts barely covered by a layer of civility paid for by the lives and freedom of the people around them. It is a crisis that strips away this delusion of gentility causes the owner, John Howarth, to take his own life.

Andrea Levy's narrative is full of humour that gently masks tragedy and moments of revelation. The violence that Howarth witnessed was perpetrated by a bunch of white thugs dressed up in women's frocks. When Howarth goes to his bedroom and subsequently takes his life, July and her lover are hiding under the bed, she desperate to piddle.

Nor do the slaves of the story escape mockery, especially those who claim some sort of superiority by having association with their white oppressors, either by having a degree of white ancestry or by working in the house rather than the field. This theme is developed in the story of July's son, and subtly turned and brought up to the present day in the last page of the story.

While Andrea Levy has clearly done a great deal of research for The Long Song, I never felt that I was getting the sort of information download that sometimes blights historical fiction. The focus is always on how the main characters, especially July, negotiate their way through the fast moving events.

In a subject as huge as slavery, There can never be one novel that can claim to be the defining interpretation, but The Long Song explores the history of this too long episode and subtly raises issues for our contemporary multi-racial society.

Andrea Levy has an extract from The Long Song on her website.

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