Friday April 23rd, 2010

The Ballad of Miss July

The Long Song by Andrea Levy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $26.00

Beginning a novel with a foreword written by a character is a good way to signal that one is about to read a book about books, about the writing and narration of stories. Andrea Levy’s The Long Song begins with the words of Thomas Kinsman, who then turns the story over to his mother, July, a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1830s. For the next 300 pages, we are at her mercy.

July, like all good storytellers, likes to manipulate her audience, and she is willing to change the facts when it suits her needs. The novel is July’s claim to power, her right to create her story as she wants it to be. Right up front, she gives us half a dozen versions of her birth: in blistering sunlight, in rain, in a hurricane. She provides multiple possibilities like this so often that it becomes natural to the reader, like following the conversation of a rambling great-aunt.

The Long Song is Levy’s fifth novel, and though it is the first to take place during the days of slavery, each of the previous four dealt with the institution’s legacy, how its effects are felt generations down the line. Levy’s last book, Small Island, won the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Book of the Year and expertly involved that interplay between the past and the present. Upon its publication, Mike Phillips wrote in the Guardian, “the entire narrative and the stories within it clearly emerge from the memories of the period’s survivors. If ever there was a novel which offered a historically faithful account of how its characters thought and behaved, this is it. But the sheer excellence of Levy’s research goes beyond the granddad tales of 50-year-old migrant experience, or the nuts and bolts of historical fact. Her imagination illuminates old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time.”

Levy wears her research lightly again in The Long Song, allowing it to form a deep foundation for the novel without clogging up a highly personal, subjective tale. Thomas, in his foreword, says, “My mama had a story—a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son. Her intention was that, once knowing the tale, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters. And so it would go on. The fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica.” The story’s importance is in remembrance. The Long Song is an ode, not a history. July trades only in her own music.

Amity, the plantation where July was born and eventually freed, shifts in her words from prison to sanctuary. She wasn’t present at a ceremony where a priest and other slaves symbolically buried slavery in a coffin, but at first she pretends she was. It’s one of the only moments where she acknowledges outright the historical setting of the book she’s writing—it’s clear she wants our attention strictly on her, even if Levy, a historian, can’t resist slipping in that contextual moment.

But July’s spirited irreverence ensures that The Long Song is not a somber glamorization of the slave spirit. Amity’s inhabitants bicker and scheme and insult each other, judging rank by skin color in the same way the whites do. July is ahead in this game, as her father was white, and she doesn’t forget it. She won’t even use the word slave to refer to house servants like herself, because “should they perchance find themselves referred to in this publication as slaves, then trouble will chase me.” July’s greatest rival is a “quadroon” named Miss Clara, who is never forced to clean for her own mistress: she has too much white in her.

July uses her favored place to her advantage in whatever ways she can. When she bears the child of Nimrod, a recently freed slave who is much darker than July, she leaves it for a Baptist pastor to raise. But when she starts sleeping with the white overseer, Robert Goodwin, and his child is born with grey eyes, one-quarter black like Miss Clara, she uses the baby girl as a token in her constant battles with the plantation’s mistress, Caroline Mortimer, who has married Goodwin and knows he won’t denounce the child.

July’s use of the infant, Emily, in power negotiations doesn’t contradict her love for the child. In fact, it expresses her love, and this is perhaps the most jarring thing about our protagonist: the utility of her children’s color determines how she treats them. She abandons her first child, she lulls her second to sleep with love songs. She feels no shame in this. Even the other slaves assume her care for the child is economically motivated. When Goodwin takes Caroline back to England, he gets another slave to sneak the baby away under a ruse, leaving July bereft when she realizes the girl will never return. Wordless for the first time, she falls to the ground. The houseboy asks her, “But what, Miss July, did you wan’ keep that little pickney for your own?” The idea seems to be a curious one to the other slaves.

The novel posits power and love as inextricable in other ways. While July’s seduction of Goodwin is at first motivated by the desire for better treatment both by her masters and by the other slaves, she comes to love him. After the rebellions start and he throws her aside, she takes her revenge by filling a serving platter with thousands of dead and dying roaches, and having a houseboy set it in front of him at the dinner table. He leaps to his feet, braying like a donkey and flailing at the insects in his clothing, while July, taking a figurative bow for rejected lovers everywhere, “silently watching this frenzied scene through the crack in the dining-room door, did hope it would make her smile, did believe it would make her laugh, and was quite vexed to find that it did not.” The relationship she took as a contract, as both personal security and validation of her relative worth on the murky scale of skin color, he took as merely an affair, and the gap between them is one of the many dehumanizing effects of slavery that Levy doesn’t burden with unnecessary commentary.

Goodwin is fastidious and believes himself to be progressive. He first tries to reason with the slaves on Amity, asking them to work hard in the name of duty, and promising them they will be rewarded for it. He professes a great pity for their state. However, once they are freed by English decree, he fails to keep the plantation financially viable with workers who now intend to set their own hours, and a series of violent escalations ensue. When the dust settles, July is left homeless, childless, scavenging with the other newly free and destitute slaves on a patch of dirt.

The boy who July left with the Baptist preacher is Thomas, and it isn’t until Thomas is a full-grown man that July is reunited with any of her family. He finds her bedraggled and starving, in court for stealing a chicken. Later, in the house he’s built with profits from his printing business—his adoptive father taught him to read—he offers her a full glass of milk, which she promptly throws up. It isn’t quite the heartwarming reunion readers might desire, but it’s honestly presented and lighthearted. In fact, for a novel about slavery, The Long Song is wonderfully funny, largely due to July’s antic voice.

And this is a book to be read for its voice, for its song. History exists only in the telling, so that July can be honest, if not exactly truthful, no matter which version she tells. Whether she was born in rain or sunlight matters a lot less than the fact that she was born into hardship, into a version of living that allowed her little power and even less worth. The novel gives it back.

Xarissa Holdaway is a writer and editor living in Arlington, Virginia. Her name is unusual enough to make her easily reachable via Google.

Mentioned in this review:

The Long Song
Small Island