Wednesday, 3 October 2012

'Stay if you wish to hear a tale of my making'


The Long Song opens with a palimpsest. Our narrator, ‘Miss July’ (although whether that is her real name or not is never made clear), is telling us the story of her birth. She relates how her slave mother, Kitty, was so strong, relentless and heroic that she simply gave birth without noticing while chopping sugar cane in the fields, grabbed a cloth, swaddled her baby and heaved her up on her back, and carried on chopping. The story has all the characteristics of the tall tales of American folk literature, or, more loosely, Jamaican trickster tales concerning the spider Anansi, and it’s no surprise to discover that it isn’t true. Instead, July tells us, Kitty was screaming so long and loudly in prolonged childbirth that the master of the plantation came to try and silence her because she was putting him off his strawberry preserves, and, once July was born, she never stopped crying either. The implication is that it would be nice if the folk-tale were real, if racist beliefs about the insensibility and strength of ‘negros’ were true, but July intends to tell us the truth, and because she may twist it at times, we, her readers, had better learn to distinguish.

Of course, July proves only partially reliable as a narrator, hiding painful details, attempting to end her story in several different places, skimming over times that contained too much suffering to be related, and occasionally inventing happy resolutions that never happened, and this is where the great strength of The Long Song lies. Like all of us, July wants to create a life-story for herself that is more than just meaningless suffering, even though she spent the best part of her life firstly as a house slave, and then as an indentured servant, in Jamaica in the 1830s. As Andrea Levy notes in her afterword, she wanted to capture the humour in a slave’s life, as well as the horror, and she’s partially successful, although not always (see below). July’s storytelling brings her older self vividly alive, and what she chooses to leave out is often as important as what she leaves in. Ultimately, this is a story full of holes, based on what July wants to recollect, and what she wants to pass onto her son Thomas, for whom she is writing the manuscript, and this sketchy structure does as much as anything else to bring home to us the devastatation of being born into slavery.

Levy is good at conveying the petty distinctions that oppressed groups always create to try to find somebody lower than themselves to hate. She details long discussions amongst freed slaves about ancestry and ‘white blood’, with the implication that paler skin and more white relatives makes one superior, and how July herself looks down upon ‘field slaves’. She’s less good on white oppressors. The major white characters in the novel, Caroline, Thomas, William and Tam, are largely caricatures, with occasional gestures towards development (a complaint I also had about Bernard in Small Island) and although we could hardly expect to encounter sympathetic characters in this context, it would have been interesting to explore the different types of prejudice they embody more thoroughly. Levy comes closest to this with William Goodwin, a white missionary who becomes overseer on the plantation after the end of slavery, and whose faith initially drives him to try to treat the former slaves more kindly, but eventually, he too collapses into brutal, blunt racism. I had hoped she would explore how Goodwin’s prejudice manifested itself in different ways, how being kind can be itself a way to wield power, and how he preaches tolerance but condones racism in very different language to that of the original planters. However, unfortunately, the demands of the plot curtail the exploration of Goodwin’s character, as they do, less obviously, that of Miss July. The years rattle on so quickly in this novel that we feel we hardly get a chance to know July before she is thrown into another very different set of circumstances, and although the pace makes it very readable and enjoyable, I felt that this was at the sacrifice of depth.

The experience of life as a slave is hardly one that fiction has left unexplored, and I am still wondering if it’s possible to bring anything new to that literature. I think it can be done; but I’m not sure that Levy manages it. There is much to explore about the subtleties of racism and oppression that she simply leaves untouched. Like her acclaimed Small Island, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I also enjoyed, this is a strongly-written novel with convincing characters, but it remains little more than the sum of its parts; to be cruel, you could call it paint-by-numbers. This novel will move you, engage you, grip you, while you are reading it; but I am not sure that it will make you think.

PS This doesn’t really belong in the review, but as an historian and a writer, I was fairly unhappy with Levy’s statement in her afterword that in writing an historical novel, one can employ imagination, whereas the historian has to stick to facts... I believe the writing of any good history, especially when sources are sparse, as they would be for slave experiences, demands the exercise of some degree of imagination – but then I don’t believe writing history and writing historical novels are as far apart as she seems to think. Hmph.

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