Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Long Song



Miss July, my dear readers, was a mischievous soul who made the mistress scream till she was so tired that when Miss July finally turned up she would be enraged but in no position to punish Miss July. The mistress, Caroline Mortimer wasn't always so easy to provoke. She used to be a happy soul who loved the idea of going around the plantation under the beautiful summer sun. Soon enough the heat of sun, which is harsh unlike in England, and the dust of the land got into her and settled within never leaving. It had made her annoying.
The way Miss July narrates her story, like how there were so many different versions of just her birth, and her condensing voice against all those condensing voices, is an interestingly meandering way of telling a light story.
You see, Miss July was born a slave. Though she didn't look it, she had a white father who was an overseer of her slave mother. She was separated from her mother at a very young age and came into her mistress's care (figuratively speaking). She made the most of it, by controlling her mistress without her mistress really understanding it. She fell in love with an ugly black man who bought his freedom, for that reason. He gave her an uglier baby dark as night and she left him on the steps of a church, because he was black and ugly of course.
She fell in love with a white man who had the bluest eyes and was the rich overseer and could give her a mulatto child, equally for all these reasons. To her pleasant surprise, he loved her too. But he couldn't marry a slave! So he married her white mistress (who was much older but equally enchanted by him) and gave Miss July her mulatto baby girl who was Miss July's pride and her mistresses envy.
And our Miss July, now an old woman is in the care (this time, literally) of her abandoned son who is now a gentleman and a publisher. He insists his mother write her experiences as a slave (now she is free) to be published. The thought itself was appalling and yet she wrote. Not her story, no. But a story which was hers to own, with bits of imagination and reality intertwined. And so comes together The Long Song.
Andrea Levy is the actual author of the book and she uses Miss July's voice so very convincingly based on years of research. I say convincingly like I knew how slaves in the early 1900s talked and lived in the British controlled Jamaica! But definitely convincingly, apparently she had to live in Jamaica for a while just to get an idea of how oppressive the sun and humidity could get.
Slavery of the Africans, their fight for freedom and their freedom are all topics often discussed in the American context but I've never really come across an English perspective. I hear it's a rare one.
The story is not about the slavery, the ill treatment of slaves or their fight for freedom. It is about these people who believed they were better and taught civilisation to other people and the other people who believed they can have a better life if they go up the ladder towards those civilised people. Sounds similar? 
So anyway, continuing with the story, slavery gets abolished in the course of the book even though no one Miss July knows had participated in the struggle for it. One of her colleagues turns drastically against her mistress but apart from that it was all business as usual.
When slavery was abolished all the slaves were told they were free to do whatever and go wherever they please. If they wanted they could continue working on the plantation for a small wage and if they decided to stay in their houses they would have to pay a small rent because the plantation belongs to the owner, the white people. I wonder who did these white people buy the land from?
It's a good read. The voice is beautifully honest, open and completely unhindered. The story is endearing and Andrea Levy captures it all seamlessly. So if you wish to read about slavery, especially the English perspective, you should read this one.
I read it simply because of the narrative, and the blurb on the back cover. You see, I love it when the writer (even if fictional) converses with the reader.
(My favourite reader-author interaction is Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being.)

PS: my dear reader, if you remember, this is how I first referred to you in my account of Berlin. It was because this is the style Miss July adopts and I had just begun reading this book.

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