The Long Song

Written by Andrea Levy
Review by Edward James

Andrea Levy’s previous books have chronicled the experience of Jamaican immigrants in post-war Britain. In The Long Song she steps back into the early 19th century, to the dying days of slavery and the early years of freedom.

The story is told in the first person, supposedly by an old woman recalling her childhood and youth. Her son has become a well-to-do printer and he cajoles her into writing her life story. We flit between the bickering mother and son in the present and the half forgotten memories of fifty years earlier. The book cover simulates the design the son might have chosen for his mother’s book.

This is a book about extremes of cruelty and injustice, but it is not a simple piece of ‘misery-lit’. The slaves cheat and manipulate their masters and mistresses as much as the system allows, and there is a complex mix of affection and resentment between mistress and servant, black girl and white lover. The narrator is as racist as any of the whites, arrogant that she is mulatto rather than negro and cringingly envious of her quadroon friend. Each gradation of colour can be equally cruel and patronising.

The story is written in a form of Jamaican patois, but it is easy to read and the dialect adds humour and immediacy. This is not a didactic novel, but so far as there is a message, it’s that everybody has their pride and that the end of slavery still left most of the black population of Jamaica poor and powerless.