For Andrea Levy I might well repeat my introduction to Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. I thought her last novel (Small Island) a bizarre omission from the Booker shortlist in its year (2004), but despite my admiration for it, I wasn’t moved to read her new one until it was shortlisted for this year’s Booker. And even then, not until the very last minute.
The Long Song appealed to me less than Levy’s other books because of my previously stated prejudice against historical fiction, and because I wondered how much another fictional investigation of the slave trade could tell me. This second thought cruelly exposes my boneheadedness as I don’t think I’ve even read any other slave trade novels. Perhaps it is better (and worse) put like this: another slave trade novel is like another Holocaust novel. The subject has an inbuilt force and power; how difficult can it be?
Levy makes it look not very difficult at all, because she is a gifted writer whose prose is a pleasure to read. And this isn’t a slave trade novel as such; it’s the story of a life, which happens to have begun in the shadow of the slave trade. To draw a further comparison with Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, the book is narrated in both the first and third person. It is 1898 and the central character, July, in her old age has been encouraged by her son Thomas Kinsman to write her life story; Thomas is a publisher (comparing himself, in a neat in-joke, to Hodder and Stoughton, the parent company of Levy’s publishers). He has also “raise[d] life out of her crabbed script to make her tale flow,” which is Levy’s way of justifying the beautiful writing, though not, I think, a forewarning of unreliable narrative.
To offer equality of opportunity when comparing Booker shortlistees, The Long Song matches Tom McCarthy’s C in beginning with a corker of a birth scene, which July tells twice, once as “ornate invention” and once as the noisy, messy truth. Is this unreliable narrative after all? Only insofar as it is a way for Levy to illustrate the distinction between ‘a good story’ and a true story, what we would like to remember versus how it really was, and it is not the last time in the book that July will be tempted to give the reader a neatly folded scene rather than the loose elements that really constitute a life. A memorable tall tale, after all, sticks longer in the mind (and the historical record) than a dully factual one.
The birth scene is July’s own. She is the offspring of Kitty, a slave, who was impregnated (in fact raped) by Tam Dewar, the overseer of the sugar plantation she works in Jamaica. When it comes to the violent birth, he intrudes on the scene to threaten Kitty with the whip “because I cannot stand the noise. I have a pain in my head, you see, that I cannot remove. So you must be quiet.” The relations between the black slaves and the white owner and overseers are, naturally, central to the book. The plantation owner, John Howarth, is widowed, and is joined from England by his widowed sister Caroline Mortimer. The power dynamic between the parties is never better displayed than in the early scene where Caroline encounters Kitty and her daughter July in the grounds:
‘Oh, she’s adorable,’ Caroline said again.
Her brother, impatient to finish the journey around the estate, called out to Caroline. ‘Well, bring her then.’
Kitty turned to face her master.
‘Come along, Caroline. Hurry. We need to get out of the sun.’
‘Can I take her?’ she asked.
Kitty tried to seize enough air to breathe.
‘Yes, if she’ll amuse you. She would be taken soon enough anyway. It will encourage her to have another. They are dreadful mothers, these negroes.’
‘She’ll be my companion here,’ said Caroline. ‘I could train her for the house, or to be my lady’s maid.’
‘Well, you could try,’ said her brother. ‘But hurry – this heat is getting fierce.’
Kitty stepped to snatch July from Caroline’s grasp. But Caroline slapped at Kitty’s hands shouting, ‘What’s she doing?’
John Howarth raised his whip at Kitty, his face fiercely showing his intent. ‘Be on your way,’ he said, ‘leave the child to your mistress.’
Key here are Caroline’s words ‘What’s she doing?’ – a succinct illustration of a gulf of understanding, and directed to her brother rather than, unthinkably, speaking to a slave, to Kitty, directly. The book is full of such perfect touches. However the greatest strength of the telling of July’s story is in her voice: a lilting patois, intimate, profane, which becomes intensified when she reports the words of other slaves on the plantation, such as Miss Rose trying to console Kitty after the loss of July: “No look so downcast, for your pickney will do her pee-pee ‘pon a throne. In the great house them have chair made of fine wood and them sit ‘pon it – straight back and all and them let them doings drop.”
As indicated above, this is not solely a story of slavery, and life for some of the characters becomes more difficult after the Baptist War of 1831 and subsequent British abolition of slavery. For some though, such as Caroline Mortimer, the most pressing concern when fleeing the plantation (“I am forgot and left only with negroes”) to take a ship back to England is “Will there be dining aboard the ship? Will I need formal attire?” In the event, she remains at the plantation with a new overseer (like ministers of state, they don’t last long), where the story develops into a struggle to modulate slavery into capitalism. We even get a forbidden-love story, with predictable and unpredictable literary twists.
There are only a few false notes in The Long Song. One occurs when the author fails to resist the temptation for a too-clever segue between scenes (the death of one character is followed by a coffin procession, which turns out not to be the expected coffin). And, perhaps inevitably in a relatively short book seeking to take in two big subjects – Jamaican slavery, and a whole life – there are shortcuts. We jump from July’s young adulthood to her old age with no account of the years between; and one significant character (along with two supporting) disappears with no resolution to their story. Both these gaps are acknowledged at the end of the book. July explains the first by recording her desire to give her story “only the happiest of endings” (returning the reader to the questions of truth raised earlier), and by the fact that “I am an old-old woman. And, reader, I have not the ink.” The second omission is discussed by Thomas Kinsman in an afterword to his mother’s story, and even enhances the plausibility of this particular loose end. Levy is clever to anticipate the reader’s objections and seek to head them off at the pass. The Long Song may not quite match up to Small Island, but it is impressive without being intimidating, which is no small achievement in itself.