Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song by Andrea Levy  may be my favorite novel of all that I’ve read this year and that is very unexpected.  It is the story of Miss July, who lived in Jamaica in the 1800s first as a slave and then as a free black.  I mostly think of slave novels as “difficult” because of the subject matter.  I also tend to think novels about the West Indian slaves tend to go overboard on the “voodoo” aspects.   I admit that I’m also sometimes suspicious that they are going to be preachy.  So I tend to not pick them up as a first choice.  Then I kick myself when they turn out to be wonderful as, for instance, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is wonderful.

This novel is funny.  Really. 

Levy writes Miss July as having a wonderful sense of humor and lets it come through in the most unexpected circumstances.  She doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery.  Miss July is the result of the casual rape of her mother by the overseer of Amity Plantation in Jamaica.  Miss July is casually taken away from her mother by the sister of the plantation owner, almost as a pet would be taken.  Miss July witnesses murder and other horrors.  She has children she must give up willingly and unwillingly.  And yet she is a survivor and her sense of humor is part of her survival instinct.

I really liked the structure of this novel.  The story is told from three points of view, although two points of view are from the same person and yet are different.  First, there is Miss July’s son, Thomas Kinsman, who is a publisher and who encourages his mother to write her story.  He provides the Introduction and also jumps in with a few editorial comments.  Then Miss July tells the story, writing in the third person.  But she also jumps in with first person interpolation, addressing us as “reader” and explaining the arguments she is having with her son.  It all works.

Another reason it works is that Miss July treats all of the people in her story, black or white, irreverently while, at the same time, taking her story very seriously.  By walking the fine line of caricature with all of her characters, Levy solves the problem of trying to explain the motivations of a large and diverse cast of characters.  They do what they do because they are who they are – it is as simple as that.

The one thing that is abundantly clear, though, is the corrupting influence of slavery.   There are no good characters because no one can be good in this environment.  Good men are corrupted.  Even Miss July is appalled and indignant to find that her “worth” is not more than the worth of the kitchen maid.

It might sound odd to say that a novel about the harshness of slavery is funny and that it works.  But over the past few years I’ve read a number of non-fiction books about life on the English Sugar Islands of the West Indies during the 18th and 19th century.  None of them captured the absurdity of the situation for all involved as well as this novel did.