Sara Collins on Andrea Levy: She changed our minds about history
Author Sara Collins reflects on Andrea Levy’s unparalleled ability to write about Jamaica’s colonial history, with her signature dash of levity
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Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010, Andrea Levy’s novel, set during the turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed, is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of people who lived it
Whether you’re new to The Long Song or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.
Andrea Levy’s bittersweet novel about the last days of slavery in Jamaica is powerful and intimate - and full of mischievous surprise.
Set during the turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed, The Long Song is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of people who lived it. Based on the lives of the people who live and work on the Amity sugar plantation, the narrative centres around July, a slave girl with an indomitable spirit for survival.
July was born into slavery on a Jamaican plantation called Amity during the early 19th century. She begins life on the plantation fields but at the age of eight is taken from her mother Kitty by the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, to be trained as her maid. Caroline renames her Marguerite and we follow her as she grows into a fiercely intelligent woman with an indomitable spirit, with her experiences set against the backdrop of the final days of slavery in Jamaica.
Caroline is a white mistress at Amity and the plantation owner’s sister. She is responsible for taking July from the cotton fields (‘Look how cute the little one is’, she says before callously removing her from her mother). Caroline teaches July to read and write so she can help her run the business. She is deeply flawed and becomes unknowingly dependent on July.
Robert Goodwin arrives at the plantation as a young overseer with larger-than-life aspirations. He marries Caroline, but develops a complex relationship with July, one which oscillates between affection and exploitation.
The Sunday Telegraph:
‘Levy’s handling of slavery is characteristically authentic, resonant and imaginative. She never sermonises. She doesn’t need to – the events and characters speak loud and clear for themselves… Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy’s writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them.’
The New York Times:
‘When you add Levy’s almost Dickensian gifts for dialogue and storytelling to her humorous detachment, her ability to see race hatred as yet another twist of the English class system, its easy to see why she has become something of a celebrity in England…. Levy’s novelistic defense against evil and injustice is her humane sense of comedy. In The Long Song she has painted a vivid and persuasive portrait of Jamaican slave society, a society that succeeded with bravery, style and strategic patience both to outsmart its oppressors and to plant the seeds of what is today a culture celebrated worldwide.’
‘The Long Song is simultaneously the life-affirming story of one woman’s battle to survive in terrible circumstances, and a tribute to the legions of slaves who did more than suffer and die, but also managed to squeeze all they possibly could out of the bleakest of circumstances.’
‘Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy’s writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them. July emerges as a defiant, charismatic, almost invincible woman who gives a unique voice to the voiceless, and for that she commands affection and admiration. Levy’s aim, she says, was to write a book that instilled pride in anyone with slave ancestors and The Long Song, though “its load may prove to be unsettling”, is surely that book.’
‘Levy’s use of a delightfully fallible narrator is clever and productive, although at times it can also seem strained and show a tendency towards the schematic. In this sense, she is herself the victim of July’s story, which gallops along, full of humour and incident, linguistically fleet of foot and by turns illuminating and heartbreaking. As a document of the end of slavery, The Long Song proclaims its own incompleteness and partiality; but as a story of suffering, indomitability and perseverance, it is thoroughly captivating.’
In the novel’s afterword, Andrea Levy details the difficulty she had in finding source material for the novel, told specifically from the perspective of Black people who were enslaved in Jamaica by white plantation owners. ‘I wanted to put back the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent on the record,’ Levy told the Guardian. How successful was the author in conjuring these lost voices? Did they feel authentic? And how different did their voices seem compared to accounts of plantation life that you’ve seen or read before?
The Long Song has an unusual format for a historical novel. Part memoir, part oral history, it is led by July, the narrator, who is detailing an account of her life on a Jamaican plantation, which is then filtered through her son, who is writing her account and experiences on her behalf. It is often non-linear and, at points, Levy deviates with interludes and interruptions, where the two discuss the presentation of the story. What did you think of this format - how did it serve your reading experience and your understanding of July’s experience? Why do you think Levy chose to write in this manner?
With the story told through the prism of July’s memory, we are led to question how much of the story is accurate. At times she recalls events, despite not personally bearing witness to them. July is presenting a collective memory of events that happened to a group of people - she fills in gaps, embellishing tales while drawing on the experiences of others. Did you feel, or question, while reading, if there was any unreliable narration from July? Ultimately, does it matter?
Violence and brutality run through the novel and Levy opens with a serious sexual assault, from which the novel’s narrator, July, is born. Discuss how gender plays a role in the novel and its wider historical events. Do you think women were more vulnerable than men?
While The Long Song depicts a dark period of history, the author’s use of language and tone is often distinctly humorous, which can, at times, feel disconcerting given the subject matter is so harrowing. How does this use of levity help readers navigate material relating to this period?
Many of the characters in The Long Song subvert expectations. July is blunt, outspoken, and short-tempered. Others that work on the plantation often feign stupidity to the plantation owners - they place bed sheets onto dining tables while those who are accomplished musicians ruin dinner parties and embarrass their hosts. These characters are not simply reduced to their suffering. Discuss the point Levy is trying to make by developing such well-rounded and complex characters.
The novel explores the complex dynamics between enslaved individuals and their captors. Despite the gulf between them, their lives run in parallel, tightly entwined. How does the novel depict power imbalances and the effects of oppression on both sides?
As a child, Caroline Mortimer takes July away from the plantation fields and her mother, Kitty. She ‘adopts’ her, renaming her Marguerite, and using her as a housemaid. How does the relationship between July and Caroline evolve as the novel progresses? Is Kitty’s life now ‘better’ as a housemaid than as a slave working in the fields?
The book covers significant periods in history, including the 1831-1832 Baptist Wars and the 1838 abolition of slavery. Discuss the portrayal of resistance and rebellion in the novel across these periods and the impact on the characters and their quest for freedom.
In an interview with the Guardian, Andrea Levy said ‘one of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I was at a conference, and a young woman got up and asked how she could be proud of her heritage when her family had been slaves.’ The author added that she wanted to make people of that heritage feel like they ‘came from people who survived and thrived through this 300 years of slavery’. Do you think the author succeeded in doing so?