In The Long Song, Andrea Levy boldly steps into the slave narrative tradition, not only resurrecting but reinvigorating it with imaginative leaps of form and structure. Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative of his own life as a slave (and eventual escape into freedom in the North) has always been the most widely read account of servitude in this almost unique literary genre, written by ex-slaves, i.e., people of African descent. True, there have been a few published accounts of similar escapes into freedom written by Caucasians, and slave narratives were written by ex-slaves in other countries (particularly the West Indies). But for all practical purposes, the genre is locked into the history of black Americans, and the narratives ceased to be written after the end of slavery.
Andrea Levy—born to Jamaican parents in England—clearly has done her homework, studied the genre and then taken the form to a new level. There’s an acknowledgements section at the end of her work listing a couple of dozen important works in the field, largely related to Jamaica and the West Indies. Though two titles are not included in the list, I’m pretty certain that Levy has also read Houston A. Baker Jr’s, collection of essays on African-American literature, called Long Black Song. Baker’s title was taken from Richard Wright’s volume of novellas, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), which includes a story called “Long Black Song.” If I have belabored these antecedents of Levy’s work it is simply because the title of her own book seems flat and uninspired without a different adjective before “song.” But that’s the only reservation that I have about this otherwise extraordinary work.
To be more accurate, The Long Song should be regarded as a novel, the term used by Levy’s publisher. The first paragraph begins, “It was finished almost as soon as it began. Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. Except upon this occasion, when he finally released himself from out of her, he thrust a crumpled bolt of yellow and black cloth into Kitty’s hand as a gift.”
Payment for a rape: cloth. And the result of that rape? The birth nine months later of Kitty’s child, named July. Henceforth, for the next three hundred pages and the duration of July’s life, more rapes, more abuse of negroes (term employed throughout Levy’s work) by white landowners before the end of slavery in Jamaica (1838). Worse, because The Long Song extends well beyond that date, the same pattern of servitude experienced by African Americans after the Civil War—indenture and exploitation as share-croppers—existed in Jamaica. The lives of black Jamaicans change little once slavery is eliminated. Rape, abuse, and murders of black people on the island continue relentlessly.
The second paragraph of The Long Song begins, “Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire.”
Not a bad analogy—those droppings—to describe the horrors of Levy’s tale, especially July’s life. Once born, she is separated from her mother. During the 1831 uprising of slaves in Jamaica, Kitty—who hasn’t seen her daughter in years—kills her rapist. That act cannot by ignored by white landowners who control the island. So Kitty is despicably violated and then hanged. There will still be seven more years of slavery, and during that time July will also be raped by an Englishman. Then she will become his concubine, beginning the night he marries a white woman. July will bear two children who will similarly disappear, just as Kitty was separated from her daughter. Bad years continue relentlessly for July, with little change in her life after 1838. But, then, decades later something happens to give July a few brief years of respite at the end of her life.
Levy’s genius is to use July as the narrator of her own story (and Kitty’s, and July’s own descendants), seamlessly shifting from the third person (for most of the narration) to the first. It takes a while for the reader to figure out what’s happening because of this inventive narrative technique but by the end of The Long Song, the collapsed voice of the dual narration is truly operatic, having shifted away from the mule droppings to Jamaica’s wild beauty as well as those intense but brief moments of happiness for her memorable characters.
The Long Song
By Andrea Levy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pp., $26.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.