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Finding Humanity In Jamaica's Last Days Of Slavery

Andrea Levy's Small Island, which won England's 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction and Whitbread Book of the Year awards, traced the experiences of a Jamaican-born RAF volunteer and his teacher wife as they settled in 1948 London (the PBS series drawn from the novel aired in April). It was based in part upon the lives of Levy's parents' generation. Her new book, The Long Song, is a remarkable and profoundly imagined re-creation of plantation life in the waning days of slavery in 1830s Jamaica.

Levy infuses her new novel with historical references and authentic details. She also has a wicked sense of humor. "It was finished almost as soon as it began," she writes in her opening lines, describing the act that results in the conception of her narrator July, a bold, engaging and keenly observant mulatto: "Kitty felt such little intrusion from the overseer Tam Dewar's part that she decided to believe him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing white man would if they were crushed together in a crowd."

July agrees to write down her story at the urging of her grown son, who will print and bind it. She starts with her birth to Kitty, a field slave. "Her mother's arms ... were as robust as the legs of a horse in full gallop." July tells how, as a child, she was plucked from her mother's side to become a companion and house servant to the plantation owner's sister Caroline, a widow newly arrived from England. Caroline gives July a new name, Marguerite, and teaches her to read and write, skills usually forbidden to slaves.

Levy is masterful at orchestrating the complex intimacies among those living together in the plantation owner's "great house." During the bloody 1832 slave rebellion, July finds the fearful Caroline clinging to her for protection. During those three days, July reports, "when those fires raged like beacons from plantation and pen; when regiments marched and militias mustered; when slaves took oaths upon the Holy Bible to fight against white people with machete, stick and gun," Caroline was safe.

The relationship between the two women becomes more complicated when a new overseer marries Caroline and settles in upstairs, while indulging his lust for July in a basement boudoir. Not surprisingly, the new master's sweet-talk -- "You are my real wife," he tells July, and, "This is my real home" -- turns sour before long.

Levy lends humanity to even the most brutal of her characters in this saga of hardship and cruelty, cruelty and resistance. She seasons her solemn tale with moments of comedy, even farce. But the stroke of genius that makes this radiant novel soar is the forthright, courageous, captivating and indomitable July.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fireand California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.comamong others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.