Lively language marks Levy's successful second act
Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a hard act to follow. Winner of numerous British awards in 2004 and 2005, the novel was catapulted across the Atlantic to further praise and critical acclaim. While Small Island follows the lives of four characters in post-WWII London, in Levy’s latest, The Long Song, the location shifts to 19th-century Jamaica in and around the years following the abolition of slavery. Though it lacks the span and richness of her earlier work, Levy’s exuberance, lively language and finely honed sense of the droll—mixed with the gravity of historical events—make this new novel a pleasure to read.
The Long Song is sung by Miss July, a former slave whose life began well before the 10-day Baptist War of 1831 brought an end to slavery on the island. Born on the Amity sugar plantation, the product of the rape of an African field hand by a Scottish overseer, July is taken up as a young girl by her owner’s meddling, needy sister Caroline, renamed Marguerite and moved into the house as a lady’s maid. It is under the somewhat inattentive eye of her mistress that July hears about the events that led to the end of her enforced servitude. But it is the domestic that interests her—the caprice and cruelty of her masters, the subtle ways she and the other house slaves conspire to fool Caroline and the rivalries July forms with other mulatto ladies of the town as they compete with one another for male attention. When the handsome and progressive English overseer Robert Goodwin comes to the plantation, his presence sets off a chain of events that prove life-changing for both July and her mistress.
Levy plays with July’s story by bracketing the novel with an introduction and epilogue by July’s son Thomas Kinsman, a successful Jamaican publisher whose very position in the town indicates the drastic change in the fortunes of Jamaican blacks since July’s childhood. In truth, Thomas cannot keep out of his mother’s story and periodically breaks in, allegedly to offer advice or to comply with her request for more paper, but really to remind us that no tale ever belongs to just one teller. Who is telling the better story is up to the reader.
Levy’s wit and her expert control of well-populated comic scenes, so familiar from Small Island, are not lost in The Long Song. At first, the humor seems an uneasy fit with the subject matter, but Levy’s mastery of her subject and the alternating voices of July and Kinsman, who so confidently claim their own stories, provide a solid bedrock for the occasional dip into farce.