The singular enjoyment of my daily commute is the uninterrupted time I get to read; which is marvellous considering my recently gained lacklustre reading habits. The monotony of commuting has given me reason to devour a good book once more, with nothing to distract me from the task.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy is my first read of the year; a wonderful piece of literature that has revitalised my love of reading.
Told in the irresistibly wilful and intimate voice of Miss July, with some editorial assistance from her son, Thomas, The Long Song is at once defiant, funny, and shocking. The child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation, July lives with her mother until Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.”
Resourceful and mischievous, July soon becomes indispensable to her mistress. Together they live through the bloody Baptist war, followed by the violent and chaotic end of slavery. Taught to read and write so that she can help her mistress run the business, July remains bound to the plantation despite her “freedom.” It is the arrival of a young English overseer, Robert Goodwin, that will dramatically change life in the great house for both July and her mistress. Prompted and provoked by her son’s persistent questioning, July’s resilience and heartbreak are gradually revealed in this extraordinarily powerful story of slavery, revolution, freedom, and love.Synopsis from GoodReads.
Written as a fictional memoir by the elderly Miss July, The Long Song recounts Miss July’s life through slavery and emancipation on the Jamaican plantation of Amity. While innocently trying to befriend Mrs Caroline Mortimer as a child, the recently arrived widowed sister of the plantation owner, July is taken from her mother to serve Caroline at the main house. Unimpressed with the name July, Caroline renames her Marguerite, preferring the names sound as it rolled off her bloated tongue.
One of the many dehumanising acts of slavery was renaming; this occurred while transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas but, also as displayed in The Long Song, when slaves were sold or taken from their parents. As slave reproduction was likened to studding horses maternal rights were forgone, and children were sold as if they were cattle. Throughout the novel, July proudly keeps her name; only the ignorant white owners refer to her as Marguerite. Names are a defining part of who we are; to be forcibly taken and renamed removes (and attempts to erase) part of your identity.
July has such a captivating personality you are willing to follow her to the ends of the world just to hear her tale. Even with “freedom” from the Queen of England, the ex-slaves of Jamaica are not free; you feel their despair as they move to claim their autonomous right to live as free men and women. White plantation owner Robert Goodwin, who falls in love with July, slowly goes mad as he is unable to control and lord over the black citizens of Jamaica. His foundations are rocked as he becomes unable to place them within his notion of what a black person should be – unintelligent and faithful, grateful for their freedom. To his indignation, they are unwilling to accept his unreasonable work and tenancy terms, leading to his own mental breakdown. The notion that anyone should be grateful for their natural right to be free was laughable; you pity Robert Goodwin for ignorance, the white ignorance, and hate him for his actions.
Initially you see how July would fall for Goodwin – the gentle teacher educating her above the standards she sees herself lost in; loving her in a unfaltering way that no one had before. That he should punch her down as well, you want to know how she handles that sadness, but she is guarded of those few years between abandonment and her son’s arrival. As we leave July we see how she handles stability with her son; a life that does not dampen her fiery spirit. There is also hope for another discovery, lead by Thomas, that you long to be concluded past the final chapter.
The Long Song is a fantastic read; you will instantly love the warm spirited July and her ability to live despite the horrors she is subjected to.