I've got off to a terrible start with this year's Bookerthon, several false starts on books I felt sure I would enjoy and then suddenly 150 plus pages in I wasn't, books that wanted to take me to places I didn't want to go and by routes I didn't want to travel at this reading moment, and then I picked up The Long Song by Andrea Levy and the sun was shining again.
In fact how can the sun not shine when you pick up a book with such a glowingly deep buttercup-yellow cover embossed with copper, but I wasn't going to be fooled, a sunny cover that surely belies the misery of slavery that awaits?
That had been my misguided reasoning for not picking up The Long Song sooner, it was on the Orange long list after all, but I just couldn't face another 'slavery' novel. I know it's important to bear witness to it all but sometimes, to be very honest, my stomach can't take the churning, the sickening violence, the whipping and the snatching of babies all defeats me, leaves me feeling wretched and so I decide not to go there.
In fact it was with an element of desperation that I finally did but only after several people had reassured me that Andrea Levy does slavery in her own inimitable style, whilst also wondering whether I was ever going to have anything good to say about any of this year's long list.
July (born in December) is Miss Kitty's pickney, the daughter of Tam Dewar the white overseer of the Amity plantation thus making her a mulatto, not quite a negro and therefore perhaps July may be blessed with more opportunities in life than her mother. Born into Jamaican slavery but a witness to the freeing of slaves and the life that followed, Miss July is writing her story, ' a story that lay so fat within her' at the behest of her son Thomas Kinsman a printer, who has insisted that she record it for posterity rather than keep telling it to him.
Thomas immediately reveals that he is a skillful editor and will be able to make sense of the most scribbled texts, whilst it's clear that July may also be a less than fallible narrator, thus setting up uncertainties and questions as this oral history is cast with permanence into the print man's molten metal.
Andrea Levy elaborates on this printing process towards the end of the book and something resonated with me about the hot branding of slaves as a means of leaving a permanent mark, and how the printer does something similar with the casting of molten metal and the pressing of words on the paper, or perhaps I was getting a bit carried away.
So Miss July assumes a lilting cadence to her voice that quickly becomes familiar and a pleasure to read, a constant reminder that this is oral storytelling, as she playfully darts around with the truth of her life and as always with any novel about slavery there is that juxtaposition between the sweetness of the sugar crop and the bitterness of the lives on the plantation.
Brutally separated from her mother to become Marguerite (because it sounds so much nicer when called out) a maid at the big house and the trials and tribulations begin. The narrative allows, indeed almost insists that the reader questions the veracity of July's frequently corrected story, this 'flimsy remembrance', thus skilfully exposing both the fictional process and the nature of an autobiographical tale in a way that chimed with my recent reading of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. In fact perhaps that was a novel about slavery of a different form but July frequently writes herself into the third person as a means of detaching herself from some of the most painful moments in the book.
However I wouldn't want you to think this book was all pain, far from it and definitely don't be put off as I was with any notions that all books about slavery must be miserable. There are moments when Andrea Levy's wry sense of humour that we all know so well from Small Island shines through in a book that held its form throughout for me, no dips or moments of ennui, I loved every word.
Every reader will doubtless find their own defining moments in The Long Song, and it has been good to read a book that deals with notions of freedom from slavery, almost a prequel to Small Island in that case, but for me there was one moment of huge significance.
As one of the plantation workers watches an artist painting the family of the big house in their setting, a setting that included July but for reasons that I won't divulge and spoil. Overlooking the presence of the worker's hovels he paints in a lush island background to the complete confusion of the onlooker who states
'But they are there before you' said Dublin Hilton to he. At which the artist barked upon him, that no one wished to find squalid negroes within a rendering of a tropical idyll, before promising Dublin that he would set his dog upon him if he did not leave him alone.
'But you paint an untruth,' said Dublin Hilton.
Somehow that moment and its context exposed and encapsulated all the duplicity and folly of colonial rule. For all her wily and often scheming ways what's not to love about July, Andrea Levy's newest heroine, and that final delicious dish of revenge served up to her master, and in the end I think I'd been allowed as close to the truth of her story as I could and should be.
My thanks to Andrea Levy for being my Booker salvation when all was looking lost, definitely one for my short list and I'd be delighted to see The Long Song take the victor ludorum, but I fear it's up against some sparkly look-at-me bobby dazzlers that may just glisten and catch the eye of the judges instead.