Book Review: “Long Song”

Author : Andrea Levy

Publisher : Headline Review

It’s Jamaica, 1898, and Thomas Kinsman, a printer by trade, introduces the book as a story told to him by his mother.  We then move back some 60+ years to the birth of a girl, in a sparse and rough hut on a plantation.  That girl is called July and her mother, Kitty, was a field slave. Her father was Tam Dewar, the Scottish overseer.  It’s quite clear from the outset that there is no love between Tam and Kitty: she was just there.  She was a slave, and she was expected to provide whatever services were required by her white owners.  And because July was a slave’s child, she became the property of the plantation owners, and when Caroline Mortimer, recently widowed and newly arrived to live with her brother and sister-in-law, takes a fancy to the child July, and asks for her as her personal servant, Kitty has her daughter taken from her.

The story moves forward a few years to the Slave Rebellion, which July survives, but many didn’t.  People with nothing more than hoes to defend themselves were burned in their houses, hanged for crimes they never committed and beaten to the last breath of life.  July is witness to all of this, and she manages to keep her position as a house slave.

Then it’s 1838, and slavery is finally abolished – not to be confused with the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which occurred in 1807.  Something I had never fully appreciated: we may have stopped the ships from transporting humans from Africa to the Americas, but it took us another 31 years before those remaining actually became free.  And it is at this point that this story becomes unbelievably sad.  The plantation owners still need their cane cut and processed, but the newly freed workers – quite rightly – will only work on their own terms, and the plantation owners seek retribution the only way they know how: burning, killing and hanging.

Despite the terrible things that happen in this book, this story is told in a homely and often humorous way.  As a personal record of a turbulent time in our history, it really tugs at the heartstrings.  It also very clearly exposes the long-ingrained racism that existed in that half of the 19th century, and in that respect this book is humbling and shocking.  It is also earthy in the way it deals with some of the necessities of human life.

An excellent and thought-provoking book, with an unusual but captivating narrative voice.  A book I will probably read again in the future.

–       Angela Wren

Actor and Director with Doncaster Little Theatre and gradually working my way up to the title of Bookworm!  Angela has appeared on ‘Book It!’ many times, both as a reviewer, and as a writer.

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