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The Long Song, By Andrea Levy

Pity Andrea Levy. It is not easy to follow up a novel as loved and acclaimed as her Orange Prize-winning Small Island. Not easy, either, to bear the weight of expectation created by becoming one of the UK's most popular black writers, quietly creating a body of work that explores and communicates the Black British experience to a mass audience.

Levy is the offspring of that pioneering generation who sailed from Jamaica to England on the Windrush. Her enviable body of work includes the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin', which focused on the pressures of growing up black in a largely white environment. Levy returned to this theme in her next books, the well-reviewed Never Far From Nowhere (1994) and Fruit of the Lemon (1996). But it was Small Island that secured her popularity and built the eager anticipation that greets The Long Song.

It is set in the world of the plantation, that tinderbox of race and slavery, sex and violence. For an intelligent and nuanced writer, this is not without risk: like the Holocaust, slavery offers ample opportunity for crude sensationalism and reprehensible voyeurism. Written from a white perspective, it can too easily appear to mimic Gone With The Wind; from a black perspective, it can echo Alex Haley's Roots. It is not easy to walk in the footsteps of blockbusters. Neither is it easy to enter territory ruled by a literary titan: Toni Morrison's Songs of Solomon and Beloved cast a long shadow. But the very drama and horror of the plantation system can obscure understanding of what it meant to live within its norms and strictures.

The Long Song is narrated by July, a female slave born and brought up on a Jamaican slave plantation called Amity. From its tantalising opening line, "The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving...", July uncoils her dramatic life. Born as the result of a squalid rape, July is destined for a short and brutal existence in the cane fields. But her life is transformed by the whim of Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner's sister, who is beguiled by the sight of this cute black child and demands July be given to her as a present. July moves from the fetid slave huts to the luxurious great house, where she becomes a privileged house slave. Her story continues through the dying days of slavery, including the Baptist Wars – when slaves on the island were inspired to withdraw their labour for ten violent days - through to abolition, the faux freedom of the apprenticeship period, and then early liberation. We watch July grow up, survive a slave revolt and then become enmeshed in a relationship with a devoutly religious but tragically self-deluded English overseer.

It is a well-researched book that wears its scholarship lightly. All the realities of plantation life are here: the social gulf between domestic slaves and those working in the field; the extreme physical hardship of cane cultivation; the casual brutality of slaves' lives, whether in field or house, where a slap, a punch or the whistle of a whip were commonplace. By reading this book we come to appreciate the terrible psychological price that slavery exacted on both slave owner and slave. In this world where cultivation and domesticity existed side by side, oppression and intimacy were enmeshed. The two enemies – masters and slaves – lived tightly entwined lives. Levy illustrates this with subtlety in what is an immensely readable and well-paced book.

Levy has grown as a writer: her use of language and imagery have become more accomplished than her earlier offerings. She has a real gift for comedy, which is very much in evidence here. One character's smile is "as mangled and forlorn as one of the missus's broken-down hair combs", while the blond curls on Caroline Mortimer's head "bounced like small birds pecking on her shoulder." We are so used to depictions of the plantation that are unrelentingly depressing that Levy's levity is at first disconcerting. But her approach acts as an important corrective to the dominant representations of this subject. The Long Song is simultaneously the life-affirming story of one woman's battle to survive in terrible circumstances, and a tribute to the legions of slaves who did more than suffer and die, but also managed to squeeze all they possibly could out of the bleakest of circumstances.

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