Book Review – ‘The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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You do not know me yet. My son Thomas, who is publishing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

July is a slave girl who lives upon a sugar plantation named Amity and it is her life that is the subject of this tale. She was there when the Baptist War raged in 1831, and she was present when slavery was declared no more. My son says I must convey how the story tells also of July’s mama Kitty, of the negros who worked the plantation land, of Caroline Mortimer the white woman who owned the plantation and many more persons besides – far too many for me to list here. But what befalls them all is carefully chronicled upon these pages for you to peruse.

Perhaps, my son suggests, I might write that it is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of the people who lived it. All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a novel they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.

Thank you to Headline, Tinder Press, Netgalley and Andrea Levy for the chance to read and review this novel

This book was witty and riveting from the outset. I loved the banter between mother and son where he was telling her not to include things and she was insisting she will include them and write it her way. The opening of chapter one managed to be full of humour despite depicting an act of violence against Kitty. It is immediately obvious that our storyteller has a no-nonsense attitude and is often unintentionally funny in how she tells her tale.

July is a slave born on a Jamaican sugar plantation named Amity. When she is nine years old the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a liking to her and takes her from her mother to live in The Grand House and be trained as her lady’s maid. Over the years Caroline comes to depend on July, giving her a safe and enviable position amongst the other workers.

This book was not an easy read. There were many vivid descriptions of violence against the workers, the awful conditions they worked and lived in, and the way they were viewed as less than human by their white counterparts. Reading how violence against them was an accepted daily occurrence and the lengths gone to by the white masters to keep them under their control was sickening. It was distressing to remember that even if July herself is fictional, these things really happened to people. I did find it interesting to learn how the Jamaicans themselves viewed colour, seeing darker skin as bad and aspiring to be light and beautiful. The different words they had for the varying mixes of parentage and what it meant for a slave in terms of their rank showed how the white man telling them they were less than him and ugly because of their colour seeped into their psyche and became what they believed of themselves.

I didn’t know anything about the history of slavery in England and its colonies or the Baptist War, I’m ashamed to admit when I think of slavery I think of America, so reading this book was an education I won’t soon forget. In particular, the image of a coffin with July 31,1838 written on it, the date slavery was abolished in Jamaica, and it being lowered into the ground along with the shackles of the slaves, is a powerful scene that will stay with me forever. I wasn’t surprised to find the freed slaves struggled to be treated as free men as sadly a declaration from the King doesn’t change the minds of those who have oppressed them for years.

The Long Song is a story of slavery, struggle, fear, murder, war and brutality. It is also a story of motherhood, childhood, love, freedom and living life against great odds. It is an entertaining and captivating story and I can see why the BBC have picked it up to make a series. The only negative for me was that it was hard to read and confusing at times because of the language.

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