On the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain, author Sara Collins reflects on Andrea Levy’s unparalleled ability to write about Jamaica’s colonial history, with her signature dash of levity

This introduction will appear in a new hardback special edition of The Long Song, due to be published by Tinder Press on 17th August, 2023

Publication date and time: Published

The thing I’ve always loved most about Andrea Levy’s novels is that they bring history as close as we can ever get to it. The past spills into the present. The people we meet there are people we might know in real life. Their joys and agonies and human foibles aren’t so different from ours. Reading her books, you feel not only that you’re entering someone else’s head but that there’s a good reason for being there. With Small Island, she didn’t just record history, she changed our minds about it, offering us a palliative for the political spite that has for too long been aimed at the Windrush generation and their descendants. Indeed, such is my reverence for that book I put off reading The Long Song for ages, fearing anything that followed such a singular achievement could only disappoint.

I needn’t have worried. Set in late nineteenth century Jamaica, The Long Song introduces us to a formerly enslaved woman named July. In her cantankerous old age, she has been given shelter by the son she abandoned at birth, now a well-to-do printer in Kingston who offers to publish ‘the story that lay so fat within her breast’ (largely so she’ll stop pestering him to listen to it). From the first line, the story veers between her wayward solipsism and his stick-in-the-mud editorial intercessions, in the process bringing them both stubbornly, selfishly – miraculously – alive. Best of all, it’s a tale told with huge helpings of scorn, sparing no one. July’s ‘demented fatty-batty missus’ is an object of ridicule rather than terror.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The singular achievement of this book is to treat the topic of slavery with all the irreverence it deserves.

— Sara Collins on The Long Song

The numerous involuntary residents of Amity plantation are often distracted by stratagems for one-upping the imbeciles who enslave them. Major tentpoles of Jamaica’s colonial history, such as Sam Sharpe’s rebellion, are touched upon, but they are by no means the main events, conceding space to July’s own thoughts and dreams and desires. They are overshadowed by her man trouble too, which ranges from hilarious (freedom makes even her cock-eyed suitor Nimrod, ‘his smile as mangled and forlorn as one of the missus’s broken-down hair combs’, sexy) to heart-breaking (an entanglement with her mistress’s white-saviour husband ends with an event so sad I could hardly breathe while reading it).

All of Levy’s gifts are on display here: the keen eye for character, the acidic wit, the ease with which she illuminates critical intersections of Jamaican and British life in ways that are as erudite as they are entertaining. But the singular achievement of this book is to treat the topic of slavery with all the irreverence it deserves. Much of what follows is deeply serious, but the satiric touch shows how we human beings can be just as crooked or clever, just as selfless or self-centred, just as ugly, yet just as beautiful, in the context of plantation slavery as in any other. There may be tragedy in Andrea Levy’s versions of history, but humour (and humanity) always wins.

Andrea Levy 2010