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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Books - The Long Song - Andrea Levy

Star rating – 8/10

Andrea Levy’s excellent Booker short listed novel ‘The Long Song’ tells a familiar story, but from an oft neglected perspective. Her concern is with the system of slavery in the Caribbean, and her narrator is July, born a female slave and now looking back on her experiences with honesty, humour, and a sometimes imperfect memory. Levy uses a clever device of other characters, such as July’s grown up son Thomas, questioning the story and the storyteller throughout to ensure that the whole tale is told.

July was born to a slave who had been raped by one of the white massas, and is heartbreakingly taken from her mother when she is just nine years old at the whim of the plantation owner’s sister. Caroline Mortimer sees July when out riding in her carriage, and finds her just too adorable to resist. She is gathered up and taken away like a doll to amuse Caroline, and obviously also to be her house servant and answer to her beck and call for the rest of her life. Caroline calls her ‘Marguerite’ as it is a proper name in her opinion, so she is even robbed of the name her mother gave to her, and her mother is cruelly left to mourn the loss of her little girl without complaint.

Levy’s story is a real page turner, fast paced and engaging. The reality of the lives of the slaves is shocking as they are routinely whipped, hit, abused and more by the white plantation owners and their overseers. There is a terrible sadness about the events that unfold, and the almost unbearable cruelty of the system of slavery and the people who perpetuated it is staggering.

The heartbreak of July’s early separation from her mother is repeated in her own experience, as her beautiful baby girl is also taken from her by trickery. But it is not all heartbreak by any means. This is a tale of strength and fighting back as well as of terrible poverty, insensitivity and inhumanity among the planter community to their negro slaves. Levy tells how the slaves bite back, when the system is abolished by the King of England himself. They quickly learn how to use their bargaining power to their best advantage, and sometimes, but not always, succeed in getting one over their former owners.

This is a great book, not having read all the other Booker short listed entries I can’t say if it should have won this time, but I can say that I certainly enjoyed it immensely, and a lot more than last years successful entrant ‘Wolf Hall’.

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