And this is why I can go no further. This is why my story is at an end. For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these. And please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them. It is only my son that desires it. For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again. Him wan’ me to suffer every likkle t’ing again!
I loved Andrea Levy’s Small Island, so when I remembered The Long Song was one of the small stack of library books I happened to sign out just before everything shut down, I was excited to dig into it. That excitement didn’t really last, though. I’m not sure if it was the book or the timing–as many of us have commented, it isn’t always easy to stay focused on reading right now–but The Long Song never really clicked for me, in spite of all the things it has going for it.
These include its intrinsically dramatic and morally weighty subject: The Long Song tells the life story of Miss July, daughter of an enslaved woman and a white overseer on a Jamaican sugar plantation. July is taken from her mother Kitty by the vapidly idle sister of the plantation’s owner and raised to be her house servant. Levy’s characters serve as devices for a detailed account of life on the plantation and some major events in the history of the island, notably the Baptist War (or Great Jamaican Slave Revolt) in the early 1830s and then the tense and often violent aftermath of the abolition of slavery.
All of this is told in Miss July’s own voice. In some ways this is one of the most appealing features of The Long Song, because July is sharp, funny, and ruthless and because the interplay between her and her son Thomas (at whose prompting she is recounting her life story) draws attention in a clever way to the mediation required between the story she wants to tell and the story he wants her to tell — and also, more generally, to the layers of mediation that were part of how many actual slave narratives reached their audiences. (One of the works cited in Levy’s bibliography is The History of Mary Prince, which I read with my British Literature survey class this term.) I admit, though, that I really struggled with her narration: its cadences and idiom were hard for me to follow, which of course is a reflection on the limitations of my own reading ‘ear.’ The differences from ‘standard’ English are actually pretty subtle most of the time, but they tripped me up surprisingly often, frequently forcing me to go back and start a sentence again to be sure I caught its meaning properly.
There are lots of horrors in the novel, and one of the things I found most interesting about it was how lightly Levy, or Miss July, handled them, moving through them very quickly or, in July’s case, expressing reluctance to go into details. There’s a 30-year stretch of her life that she basically refuses to talk about at all: pressed on it by her son, she gives that grim period about a page. The effect is not to minimize the violence and suffering: somehow they seemed worse for being thrown at the reader in such a darting fashion. Perhaps Levy’s idea was not to indulge in ‘trauma porn,’ not to turn people’s suffering into spectacle. Something else Levy avoids is the cliche of turning tragedy into triumph: Miss July ends up OK, and we know she will survive all along, just from the fact that she is writing her memoir in the first place, but the story of her life is not one of heroism, of overcoming or rising above the hardships or the degradation she both witnesses and experiences. Hers is a story of survival, sometimes on her own terms, sometimes not; she’s imperfect, not idealized or exemplary. Maybe that too is part of the point: she shouldn’t have to be perfect, after all, to deserve her freedom, or for her life and her voice to matter.
As often happens, writing about the book has improved my relationship with it! I wasn’t gripped by The Long Song while actually reading it, but as I reflect on it, it seems to have been doing a lot of things worth thinking more about.