Review of The Long Song by Andrea Levy – Books set in Jamaica

Books set in Jamaica - The Long Song by Andrea LevyI have just finished reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song for the World Party Reading Challenge for books set in Jamaica and so while I’m finding myself thinking in the style of Miss July’s Jamaican patois, I shall do my very best not to write in it!

I really enjoyed this novel in which we view the abolishing of slavery in Jamaica through the unreliable eyes of Levy’s main character Miss July, interrupted by the odd interjection from July’s son Thomas, who questions her recollections.

Born on a slave plantation and taken away from her mother to become a ‘lady’s maid’ at around nine years old, July is forced to wait hand and foot on her ‘Missus’, Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner John Howarth. Caroline soon becomes almost entirely dependent on July, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the main strands of the novel.

It is when July is in her late teens that the plantation’s slaves start smelling the whiff of freedom, but it is still many years before emancipation, and the road there is far from smooth.

As is inevitable in any book about slavery, this novel is confronting. And at times it is almost unbearable to witness the attitudes of the plantation owners.

In one scene, Howarth is showing off the strength of his slave Kitty to Caroline.

“Show your mistress your legs,” (Howarth says to Kitty)
Kitty did not move.
“Lift up your skirt and show her your legs.”
When Kitty still did not take heed of his command he huffed,”Oh, good God,” before grabbing the worn cloth of Kitty’s skirt and raising it almost to her waist. Kitty turned her head to one side as John Howarth beckoned his sister.  He commenced rubbing his hand up and down Kitty’s leg saying, “Come and feel the muscles.”

This is not the worst example of the liberties whites took with the bodies of their slaves, but it does reveal the casual indifference they had towards them – treating them as nothing more than livestock.

There is no gloss to be seen in Levy’s account of daily life on the plantation – from the birth of children to the reality of daily ablutions, the raw physical nature of plantation life is revealed in all its glory. Here are just a couple of examples:

“But Kitty did at that moment fall upon her knees and, with her heavy belly brushing the dirt floor, crawl upon the mat. Soon the trash, which was the substance of her mattress, was soaked through with Kitty’s sweat – it squelched underneath her as she writhed, tormented, for some position that might ease her pain.”

“One–wearing a bright-red madras kerchief upon her head and an apron at her waist that was so splattered with stains it did appear like a map — was chewing upon something with her mouth agape. Another picked at the contents of her nose, wiping it upon the filthy rag of her skirt as she angled her head awkwardly so she might better see through an eye that was bruised-bloody, swollen and half closed.”

All the worst of human physicality is proudly displayed in this novel – and it is not for the squeamish!

But despite being in a novel which appears to be coated in sweat and grime, July emerges as a truly irrepressible character. She is mischievous and feisty, intelligent and quick-witted and her ability to outfox her lazy, dim mistress is true entertainment.

The Baptist War

While Levy moves through various time periods, it is the lead up to and the years following the abolishing of slavery in the British Empire which hold the most interest for me.

There is very little historical fact and background included in the novel itself because as July points out, without the benefits of modern communications, she really didn’t know what was going on around the island throughout such pivotal events. Referring to the telephone she says  “If there was such an invention at the time of this Baptist War (as my son does name it), then I am sure I would have known what was going on everywhere at one time. But there was not.”

So, as July is unable to furnish us with the facts, here’s what I have been able to find out.

The Baptist War of Christmas 1831 was an uprising which saw as many as 60,000 slaves mobilised. It had begun as a general strike but soon became a fully-fledged rebellion lasting 10 days. Led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe the uprising was soon repressed by the plantation owners and Sharpe was hanged. Around 500 slaves were killed during the revolt or executed afterwards.

Statue of Samuel Sharpe in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Image by Pozole via Wikimedia Commons

But while the rebellion was unsuccessful, it is thought to have contributed to the call for emancipation, which finally came in 1938.

For July and her fellow slaves, this period is filled with much uncertainty, and it is heartbreaking to witness these promises of freedom being routinely dashed. And even when the slave-trade is completely abolished, things do not necessarily improve – the rules are all gone, and plantations are not obligated to hire or house the people who have worked their lands for generations. The former slaves do not emerge into a level playing field.

It is distressing to realise how deeply the arrogance and contempt of the white plantation owners ran both before and after abolition. Even apparently ‘enlightened’ characters are unable to contemplate a world in which the former slaves might have their own ideas, ambitions and abilities – and in fact do all they can to crush their entrepreneurial spirit.

New life for Falmouth?

The novel is set in Falmouth on Jamaica’s north coast; it had one of the busiest ports on the island and was central to the slave trade. With nearly a hundred plantations producing sugar and rum, Falmouth was wealthy and vibrant during its heyday with as many as 30 ships in the harbour on any given day.

But with the end of slavery, the town suffered a rapid decline. This has left at least one positive legacy. With a lack of development over the years, many of Falmouth’s original buildings are still standing, making it one of the best preserved Georgian towns in the Caribbean.

Falmouth has recently experienced a resurgence, as cruise companies realise its potential both for historical tourism and as a landing point for those wishing to visit Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. In fact one such cruise liner has spearheaded the building of a new port, which it is hoped will bring much needed commercial activity to the town. As with all projects such as this there is some controversy, but those behind it say it will be sensitive to the historic nature of the town. If anyone has been to Falmouth recently, I would love to hear your thoughts on this…I understand it is still very much a work in progress.

In so many ways this is a heart-breaking novel and reminds us that it often takes generations before real change is made. And even when it does, there are new sets of problems; the legacy of what has come before. But despite the dark history being told here, Levy’s (and July’s) narration manages to pick out the light moments and give us plenty to smile about along the way.

On finishing this novel I couldn’t help but think how much I’d love to sit down with Miss July to share a cup of tea and some of her finest naseberry preserve – and have her tell me some more of her marvellous stories. Of course, I know Miss July has a habit of bending the truth from time to time, but I think I can live with that!

Suzi

P.S. Have you read The Long Song? Have you ever been to Falmouth? Let us know in the comments what you thought….

Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.

Afghanistan
Turkey
Greece
Iran
England
Ireland
Jamaica
Pakistan
Russia
Spain
Thailand

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Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com)


Exploring novels set in Jamaica – World Party Reading Challenge

Books set in Jamaica - The Long Song by Andrea LevyWell, I have been a dismal failure in keeping up with my own (inherited!) challenge…but as with all setbacks, there is nothing to be done but to pick yourself up and carry on.

So for now, we are all going to have to do a little bit of creative calendaring and pretend we are back in April…while we make a little trip to Jamaica for the World Party Reading Challenge.

There was really no choice for me when it came to considering books set in Jamaica – I knew exactly which one I wanted to read. Andrea Levy’s The Long Song has been on my TBR list ever since it came out last year, so I have just download it onto my kindle (yes, I have succumbed!) and am keen to get started.

The novel is set in the 19th century and is the story of July, a Jamaican house slave on a sugar plantation. July grows up at a time when calls for freedom are gathering, culminating in a slave revolt which leads to emancipation in 1838 – so I’m guessing we will experience a whole heap of Jamaican history through July’s eyes.

I know little about Jamaica, so am looking forward to finding out more.

A couple of other novels you may want to consider are….

The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson in which we witness political change and the Books set in Jamaica - The Pirate's Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompsonglamor of Hollywood visitors to the island through three generations of women. After screen legend Errol Flynn is nearly shipwrecked off the Jamaican coast, he sets up home on Navy Island, where he holds glittering parties and has an affair with a young Jamaican girl, Ida. The story of Jamaica’s tumultuous struggle for self-rule and its eventual independence are all part of this novel which centers on Ida as she attempts to care for the child Flynn leaves behind.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is another story of slavery and rebellion on a Jamaican sugar caneBooks set in Jamaica - The Book of Night Women by Marlon James plantation. Written in Jamaican patois, this story of the slave girl Lillith and the ‘Night Women’ who plot to bring about change reveals the brutality and horror of the time.

And there are several others listed at our Jamaica page, so take a look and see if anything there inspires you.

Here’s a few of the important bits of Jamaican history you will want to keep in mind as you are reading.

  • Jamaica is in the Caribbean Sea about 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Cuba. It was first claimed by the Spanish, and then became a British colony after it was seized by the English in 1655. It is still part of the British Commonwealth.
  • Slavery was part of Jamaica from the days of Spanish colonialism when African slaves were brought to the island. The trading of slaves was banned in 1807, but it was the 1830’s before slavery itself was officially abolished.
  • Jamaica became independent in 1962 after a brief time being a part of the Federation of West Indies.

Now if you have been incredibly organised and have actually read your Jamaica book already, then I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or if you have a review of a book set in Jamaica on your own blog, then give us a link so we can all see what you think….

But if, like me, you are still thinking you are in April…then now is the perfect time to get started

UPDATE: To read my review of The Long Song, click here.

Suzi

Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.

Afghanistan
Turkey
Greece
Iran
England
Ireland
Pakistan
Russia
Spain
Thailand

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Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com)


Packabook is off to the Caribbean – Books set in Jamaica

Jamaica Beach The timing couldn’t be better for the launch of Packabook’s Jamaica page.

We have just seen the release in the UK (those of you in the US will need to wait until April – sorry!) of Andrea Levy’s new novel The Long Song, the story of July, a Jamaican house slave on a sugar plantation.

You may know Levy from her 2004 novel Small Island which, while it has Jamaican references, is predominantly set in Britain. It was a book that won much praise and a slew of prizes including the Orange Prize for Fiction, and it left many of us in great anticipation as to what she would write next.

As Packabook readers, we couldn’t be more delighted that Levy decided to explore Jamaica itself with this new novel.

Set in the 19th century, The Long Song centres on the relationship between July and the mistress of the plantation, Caroline Mortimer. It is a time when change is in the air, and there is a gathering movement for freedom. Levy takes us through all this, right up until the eventual abolition of slavery on the island in 1938, and the years following emancipation.

Levy herself is the child of Jamaican migrants,and was born in Britain in 1956. At least one of her ancestors was born into slavery, but she knows little of their story. Interviews with Levy since the release of the book have revealed her passion for the subject and in fact she has described herself as ‘obsessed’.

The reviews for The Long Song have been filled with praise. Here are some of them if you need some more convincing.

And after reading those, I just know you are going to find it impossible to resist ordering the book yourself. So here’s the link.

But of course, we have many other books on our Jamaica Page. In doing the research to find some great titles for you, we uncovered some real gems.

View Packabook US Jamaica

Among them there’s The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson in which we witness political change and the glamor of Hollywood visitors to the island through three generations of women. There’s Marlon James’s powerful debut novel John Crow’s Devil and there’s some laughs to be had with The Lunatic by Anthony C. Winkler or Mari SanGiovanni’s Greetings from Jamaica – Wish you were Queer.

All of these books can be better enjoyed with a little background understanding – so here’s a few key facts about Jamaica to help you on your way.

  • The island of Jamaica is in the Caribbean Sea about 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Cuba. It was first claimed by the Spanish, and then became a British colony after it was seized by the English in 1655. It is still part of the British Commonwealth
  • The capital is Kingston
  • Slavery was part of Jamaica from the days of Spanish colonialism when African slaves were brought to the island. The trading of slaves was banned in 1807, but it was the 1830’s before slavery itself was officially abolished.
  • Jamaica became independent in 1962 after a brief time being a part of the Federation of West Indies.
  • Over the years, many Jamaicans have chosen to migrate to other countries, especially to the U.S, Canada and Britain.
  • The country has many resources including bauxite and sugar, but despite this there is also a great deal of crime and poverty. There are both luxury resorts and densely-populated ghettos.
  • When many of us think of Jamaica, it is of music, food and a rich mix of culture – and of course the reggae master Bob Marley!

So with the dregs of winter hanging about here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to let a little sunshine in and start reading a Jamaican novel this month. Head over to our Jamaica Page and choose your favorites.

And we’ll start working on titles for next month’s New Country page – Iran. As always, any suggestions are most welcome…..

Suzi from Packabook

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Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com)


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Please note - if you read our reviews and click on our links to buy books, we will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and we thank you for your support! Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com