Monday, May 2, 2011

World Party: When 'freedom' doesn't really mean 'free'

For April, the World Reading Challenge country was Jamaica, and I wanted to pick something historical. The most recent novel of note having to do with Jamaica is probably Marlon James' The Book of Night Women. However, it's pretty long and, to be honest, pretty graphic—something I did not want to read.

Therefore, I went with Andrea Levy's The Long Song, a story of Jamaican slavery and its abolition in 1834 as told by Miss July, a "resourceful and mischievous" slave on the Amity sugar plantation.

July is the daughter of a slave, Kitty, and a white overseer. She was separated from her mother as a young child and moved into the plantation house to work as the personal slave of Miss Caroline Mortimer, the sister of Amity's owner and a widow recently come from England. July, dubbed 'Marguerite' by Miss Caroline because it sounds better, learns how to keep herself in the good graces of her mistress and become an indispensable hand. When a new English overseer arrives at Amity to handle the newly "freed" slaves, July's world shifts as she meets a new kind of white man, unlike any she's met before.

The format of this story is that of a novel within a novel. July is writing her story for publication for her son Thomas, a well-known publisher in latter half of the 1800s. Her style always reminds the reader that they are, in fact, reading HER story. She tells her story through her own perspective, based on memories and relationships. July's voice was simple, straightforward, without reflection, and with a wry sense of humor. Though the perspective is that of July's, Levy created a more complex novel with the inclusion of Richard Goodwin, that new English overseer. The son of a minister, Goodwin has a somewhat humanist approach to dealing with the former slaves, but his views become conflicted the longer he's at Amity and the more he has to deal with.

I was surprised at the amount of cruelty and brutality described in this book, especially since all comments I had seen before reading noted the humor in its narrator's voice. But I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise; it seems that all books I found on Jamaica that were exemplary of its history and culture focused on slavery. I am glad I read a book about an important aspect of Jamaican history, but I hope next month's country of choice is a little less depressing. (It's Pakistan, so my hopes aren't too high on that one.)

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