Every answer raises another question.
By Andrea Levy
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 313 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Each of Andrea Levy's novels seems to begin with questions raised by the previous one, as Levy uncovers yet another layer of black British experience. Her first three novels--Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), Never Far From Nowhere (1996), and Fruit of the Lemon (1999)--focus on young, black, working-class women growing up in an environment that is often hostile to them. Like the author, the protagonists are born in London of Jamaican parents. They struggle with issues of identity and belonging as they seek to define themselves on their own terms. The protagonist of Fruit of the Lemon, Levy's third novel, feels something is missing and, also like the author, journeys to Jamaica as an adult to uncover her family history so she can return home with a better understanding of herself. This initial look back into history comes fully to fruition in Levy's fourth novel, the award-winning Small Island (2004), which focuses on the Windrush Generation, named for the ship that brought 492 Caribbean migrant workers to London's Tilbury Docks in 1948. This iconic moment, which has come to mark the beginning of postwar migration from Britain's dwindling empire to its imperial center, is particularly poignant for Levy, as her own father was aboard the Empire Windrush.
It is therefore not surprising that Levy's most recent novel, The Long Song, goes further back into Jamaica's and Britain's inextricably linked histories. In "The Writing of The Long Song," an essay on Levy's website (www.andrealevy.co.uk), she explains that the decision to locate her historical exploration during Jamaica's final years of slavery and the beginning of emancipation stems not only from questions left open from her previous work but specifically from her desire to respond to a young woman she encountered at a conference, who wondered how she could possibly find anything to be proud of in a heritage rooted in slavery. With its fearless and feisty protagonist, The Long Song answers this question. Levy herself could find only pride in the remarkable strength, determination, and ingenuity her ancestors needed to survive. Her declared interest is in examining the interactions of daily life on the ironically named Amity Plantation, where her narrative is set and where people are not only "suffering and dying," but also "living and surviving," and "building their lives, families and communities, ducking, diving and conducting the businesses of life in appallingly difficult circumstances."
Miss July--"a noble old woman ... many of [whose] years were lived in harsh circumstance"--is the sometimes cantankerous, always likeable narrator of The Long Song, who tells her life story in 1898. Most of the events she discusses occur during the final years of slavery and its immediate aftermath. The slave uprisings known as the Baptist War of 1831, the interim years of forced indentured servitude known as the Apprenticeship, final abolition in 1838, and continued exploitation after that time are all vividly detailed. Born into slavery, the daughter of a field slave and an abusive Scottish overseer, young July spends her first years with her mother, Kitty, but her life is soon transformed by the whims of Caroline Mortimer, the widowed sister of the slave master John Howarth, who finds July "adorable" and claims her as her personal house slave. Caroline renames her Marguerite, "for she liked the way the name tripped upon her tongue like a trill," yet July tries to hold on to the name her mother gave her.
Once pressed into service in the slave master's house, July shows her ability to walk the fine line between obedience and resistance. She grows into a spunky and clever young woman who preserves her self-regard by conducting her life on her own terms as much as she can, while tricking her demanding, "fatty batty" mistress with histrionics into believing that she has only her mistress's best interests at heart. July perfects the art of "skilful timing ... dashing in from ... somewhere; eyes wide with concern to do her missus's bidding.., of course." While Levy details the brutal treatment slaves received during this period, she also focuses on the daily lives and resistance of the people who worked on the plantation during slavery and afterward, and on the relationships they developed.
The novel shows how the legacy of slavery corrupts most relations between white and black people, as well as distorting interactions among black people in the field and in the house. While many of the white landowners treat black people in ways that are purely hateful, exploitative, and cruel, there are exceptions. However, the few white people who fail to uphold white supremacy find themselves brutally ostracized and vilified by other whites. Moments of trust between the white and black characters are fleeting, because "good intentions" often mask the white characters' persistent belief in their own superiority. When God-fearing Robert Goodwin comes to oversee Amity Plantation, he believes that the "African stands firmly within the family of man," and he seems to see--with his "bluest eyes"--July's beauty and goodness. Yet he is ultimately unable to move beyond his paternalistic, racist ideology according to which black people are "simple, good fellows" who will behave "obediently" when shown "kindness" and who "are not so far from dogs in that respect." Similarly, through Miss July's interaction with the quadroon Miss Clara, Levy shows how slavery's classification of people into "negro," "mulatto," "quadroon," "mustee," and "mustiphino" creates divisions and the damaging belief that the whiter one is, the better. Indeed, July initially believes that being mulatto will make her more desirable to the man she loves, but as Caroline Mortimer tells her, "You are still a negro."
As the first black printer in Jamaica, Miss July's son, the highly accomplished Thomas Kinsman, carries on his mother's proud legacy of refusing to be defined by white people. His prologue and epilogue frame his mother's narrative and explain how Miss July came to write her story, and at the seams of the narrative, Miss July spars with him about how her story should be written. The interruptions to the narrative remind us how difficult it is for Miss July to relive her story, and she claims several times that she has finished, only to be urged on again by her son. The umbrage Miss July all too easily takes at her son's editorial suggestions--or what Miss July refers to as "pages with nothing but my son's back-chat written upon the leaves'--are among the funniest interactions in the novel, but they also poignantly mask her pain and vulnerability, and reveal the tenderness and love between mother and son.
The portrait that ultimately emerges is that of a bold, intelligent, and humorous woman who refuses to reduce her "long song" to a litany of tragedy. She has experienced tragic events--being torn away from her mother, losing her own children, witnessing violence, and being treated at times in excruciatingly demeaning, hurtful, and violent ways--but she has survived by her wits. While still troubled by her past, she will not "dwell upon sorrow." Rather, she claims happiness for herself because she has triumphed over terrible odds. She has emerged with her humanity fully intact and created a story whose "words have a power that can ... cower even the largest man to gibbering tears." Through her words, she has created an inheritance, and her son envisages his mother's tale entering posterity, that "It]he fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica." In the middle of the novel, Miss July tells us of a portrait of mistress and master into which she insinuates herself as the main protagonist that she is. At the behest of the mistress, the artist unsuccessfully attempts to minimize July's prominence in the painting. The revisionist painter also erases the "disgusting negro hovels" from the landscape despite being told by one of the black plantation workers that he is creating "an untruth." Narrating her story enables Miss July to reinstate the truth of black people's central role in Jamaican and British history and put them back into the picture.
The Long Song is a lively and engaging novel, with well-drawn characters, that answers the questions it sets for itself and stimulates the reader to ponder others beyond the scope of the text. What were the experiences of earlier generations of enslaved Africans in Jamaica? What stories can be told about the period between abolition and the end of colonialism? What relations grew in Jamaica between Africans and indentured laborers from India and other people, such as Jews, to whom the narrative alludes? How did Africans in pre-Windrush Britain live and what legacy did they leave? Whatever questions Andrea Levy chooses to answer in her next novel, she will no doubt delight her readers as she continues her own long song about intertwining Jamaican and British lives.
Susan Alice Fischer is professor of English at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York an editor of Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education and book reviews editor of Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London. She writes about contemporary British women's fiction.