The Long Song chronicles, from a first person perspective, the life of July, a female slave born and brought up on the plantation Amity. She speaks about her life at the behest of her son, starting with the rape of her mother by a cruel overseer, through her time as a house maid for a white lady called Caroline Mortimer, the two children she bears, and touches on the dying days of slavery, including the Baptist Wars.
The book is written with simplicity and grace, using the Caribbean patois to great effect. July's voice is warm and cheeky, insisting that she will tell her story without "...words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mile..." The words bounce from the page, idiosyncratic and humorous: 'fatty batty', 'bug-a-bug', 'licky-licky'.
With the prose reading so smoothly, it is easy to disregard this novel as being merely light and readable. It deals, rather, with the true realities of slavery and plantation life: the gulf between the house slaves and those who worked the fields; the hateful mistreatment and casual cruelty by the white people of those who slaved for them; and, indeed, the undercurrents of tension between the blacks regarding the colour of their skin: "Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; the the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino... oh, the mustiphino's child with a white man for a papa, will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person."
Despite the weighty subject matter, Levy manages to avoid it becoming a depressing read. In fact, we delight in the japes played by the slaves on their white owners, such as when they switch the good table linen for soiled bedsheets during an important Christmas meal. However, there are a couple of occasions when the sheer horrors of the slaves' lives is brought home to us, such as here when Kitty carries dung in a container upon her head: "...the solid odour did choke her at the throat, after mighty coughing and a few strong inhalations, all the air about Kitty, be it sweet or bitter, came to smell like shit, so the offence was lost. But for her tongue there was no such accommodation. When, unwittingly, a piece would fall into her open mouth... it would burn so fierce upon her tongue that she feared a hole was being bored right through it."
The white people in this tale are, universally, to be derided or hated or pitied - none of them emerge well, but all are three dimensional with realistic motives ascribed to them, such as Robert Goodwin who seeks to do well by the blacks he owns right up until the point where they refuse to work for him.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Long Song - in fact, my only complaint was minor and thus: the story was written from first person perspective which meant that a) sometimes July wouldn't have known things that she was presented as knowing e.g. how her mistress feels when smelling the bodies of her slaves and b) we missed hearing an awful lot of external events, since July herself did not see them or know of them.
Other than this, The Long Song was a fine book - telling an authentic tale about a very shameful point in British history. It represents a feat in research and imagination, combining to present a novel that, though slight, presents an honest account of what it must have been to live as a slave in the 1800s. I found it entertaining, funny and horrific by turns and the story of July will stay with me for a while.
Man Booker Prize thoughts: I feel like a fraud talking about this novel's chances at the Booker Prize. I genuinely don't think I've read any of the previous winners, unless by accident and all unaware! This being the first novel of the long list I've read, as well, doesn't make it any easier setting out my thoughts. All I can say about its chances is that I think it effectively combines literary skill with a damn good story, that also conveys a weighty message. If this is what the Booker judges are looking for, then I can see The Long Song making it to the short list.