Telling Her Story

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 312 pages, ISBN 978-0755359417 (paper)

• October 2010

In her explanatory essay, “The writing of The Long Song,” Andrea Levy describes her fifth novel as an attempt to “breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events.”1 The Long Song relegates documented History to the margins of personal experience, reminding readers throughout that history is not only “made,” but lived. Fixing her gaze on 19th century Jamaica, Levy crafts her historical novel as the tale of a formerly enslaved woman with a story “that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will” to pass it on to her descendants (3). Though the narrative contains elements of what Levy terms the “morality play” of slavery—rapacious masters, self-important quadroons and brutal overseers all make their requisite appearances—it does not attempt to explain slavery’s existence and eventual collapse. Instead, The Long Song seeks to recover the “chatter and clatter of people building their lives, families and communities, ducking, diving and conducting the businesses of life in appallingly difficult circumstances.”2  Where Levy falters is in belaboring History’s fallibility. A few examples: a suicide is documented as murder, the lush background in a portrait renders invisible the blacks in its midst and an essay published in a Baptist magazine proves to be exaggerated for the sake of humor and self-aggrandizement.

The novel opens with a foreword by July’s son, printer and editor, Mr. Thomas Kinsman, who highlights the materiality of “the book you are now holding in your hands,” but positions the text’s substance as less tangible by referring to it as a story, fable and yarn (3). The narrative proper then unfolds through a mix of Victorian narrative conventions and post-modern metafictional conceits; the narrator underscores often the intimate relationship between writer, reader and text, addressing the reader directly and beckoning him or her to bridge the mediating distance of the text by leaning in to receive whispered insights. At the outset, the reader knows only that the tale belongs to Thomas Kinsman’s as-yet-unnamed mother. Narrated throughout in the third-person omniscient, the story is an account of a girl named July, and not until page forty-four does the reader learn that Kinsman’s mother, too, is named July. Though the reader might assume that the narrator is the protagonist, the narrator July does not admit as much until halfway through the story, and even then refuses to shift from third- to first-person point of view.

The novel proceeds in fits as Thomas interrupts on occasion to critique his mother’s style and voice, to insist that she provide more details and even to chide her when she describes scenarios he knows to be false. Throughout, the narrator July seeks both to gain the reader’s trust and maintain her authorial autonomy, to balance fidelity to the past with the human inclination to represent the world as one wishes it. Kinsman never seems to grasp that the third-person perspective and the privilege of revision allow his mother to separate herself from the atrocities she once endured and now recounts. The tale may be hers, but she does not consider herself to be “that July.”

In Part Two, the longest of the novel, Kinsman interrupts his mother’s account of a Christmas dinner cut short by the arrival of militia men, informing his mother that she speaks of the infamous Baptist War. Thomas assumes that one knows when s/he is a part of History and pushes his mother to identify the leaders of the rebellion, clarify which plantations were fired first and explain what the rebels believed. Of course, History does not always appear as such to those living it, and the narrator July declares that during the uprising, the only thing the protagonist heard was the sound of another enslaved woman “gnawing upon the missus’ discarded ham bone” (81). In fact, the protagonist July found the Baptist War significant insofar as it initiated a series of events that sent her back to the negro village of her birth for a fleeting reunion with her long-forgotten mother, Miss Kitty.

Part Three skips to July 31, 1838, the end of slavery in Jamaica, at which point the narrator July attempts to conclude her tale. Thomas, however, insists that his mother tell of the son (himself) he knows she abandoned at the Baptist minister’s house. Though she maintains that the story is her creation and “told for [her] amusement” (144), the narrator July submits to her son’s request and resumes her story with the arrival of the liberal overseer, Robert Goodwin. The relationship between Goodwin and the protagonist July develops like the plot of a paperback romance and in Part Four Goodwin marries Caroline Mortimer, July’s owner, and takes July as his mistress. The latter enjoys near freedom as the mother of Goodwin’s daughter, Emily, until the new master runs afoul of the emancipated cane workers. Goodwin is predictably corrupted by the power he wields, resorts to violence, suffers a nervous breakdown and turns on the protagonist. He and Caroline leave for an English vacation meant to restore his health, and an unsuspecting July wakes to find that her former lover and mistress have absconded with her daughter, Emily.

The narrator July attempts once more to conclude her tale on a positive note, insisting in Part Five that the protagonist July went on to live in prosperity and independence, but again Thomas interposes and his mother amends her story to acknowledge that her son rescued her from near starvation. It is here that the narrator finally concludes her “long song” of a tale (306), informing the reader that “[she has] not the ink” to describe life between her daughter’s abduction and her reunion with her son (307). Thomas then asserts his privilege as editor, following his mother’s story with an afterword in which he appeals to readers for news of his half-sister, Emily.

The Long Song lacks the lyricism and rhythm of Levy’s prize-winning novel, Small Island; the language is not as rich and July’s asides about her present life can be distracting. What The Long Song does offer is an affirmation that descendants of the black diaspora have a heritage of which to be proud. Persons like July lived; they struggled, wept, laughed and endured, and we, their descendants, have the privilege of piecing together their stories such that they become ours.

 

Reanna Ursin is an Assistant Professor of English at McDaniel College where she teaches literatures of the Black Diaspora, as well as English Composition. She draws upon literary and historical analyses, as well as critical race studies, to examine how postmodern historical novels participate in and shape contemporary debates about slavery’s material and psychological legacy.

 


1Levy, Andrea. “The writing of The Long Song.” Andrea Levy.  29 August 2010. http://www.andrealevy.co.uk/index.php

2Levy, “The writing of The Long Song.”

 

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