Chains of freedom

In her captivating new novel, Andrea Levy steps back in time to explore slave life in Jamaica.

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Five books in, and still basking in the glow of the multi-award winning Small Island, the British author Andrea Levy is finally writing novels of the kind described as "eagerly awaited". Happily, it suits her rather well. The Long Song, in its exploration of the life of the slave girl July in 19th-century Jamaica, not only has an epic sweep; it is also comic, historic, even cinematic. All this in a book that ostensibly chronicles the horrors of slavery and has no problems calling black people negroes. In fact, that's one of the more polite terms she employs.

Levy's new book crackles with an ambition born of the self-confidence that must have come with Small Island's huge success. That book chronicled the lives of Jamaicans who emigrated to Britain during the Second World War, but pulled off the very special trick of making the struggle and the story more important than its specifics. It was tender and romantic, but tough, too - and Levy later put the staggering number of translations (22 at the last count) down to a general, worldwide connection with the immigrant experience.

It was also about her own family's experience - her father sailed to Britain on the famous Empire Windrush ship in 1948 - and her previous books had also reflected on being British and black in the 20th century. And if Small Island was the full stop to those stories, The Long Song is their forerunner, in a sense. Once again, Levy is questioning her past: it's just that this past is not the more recent one of her parents and grandparents, but the past of her ancestors born into slavery on sugar plantations at the beginning of the 19th century.

This, of course, is painful territory - both for the oppressed and the oppressors. Three years ago, the bicentennial of William Wilberforce's abolitionist Slave Trade Act was marked around the world by public apologies from heads of state - but unrestricted freedoms did not actually arrive until 1838, and it's this epochal moment around which The Long Song is set. Even though the story of July begins with the rape of her mother and, not long after, her own enslavement as little more than a child, Levy treats a potentially dark and uncompromising story with a deft touch. The compulsive narrative drive never trivialises the injustices heaped upon an entire people.

Much of this is down to the clever way Levy frames the novel. Its "editor", Thomas Kinsman, explains in a fictional 1898 foreword that the memoir is his mother's testimony, and she, we soon learn is July. But - and this is far less irritating than it sounds - the action often pauses as July and Kinsman squabble about style and content. It also means, told in hindsight, that there is a fascination in finding out how July managed to get to the point where she can sit in a busy, monied household and write her life story.

And what a story. Her memoir quickly reveals her to be the offspring of a white Scottish overseer and a black slave, whisked away on a whim by the woman who becomes her white mistress, Caroline Mortimer. It is from Mortimer's plantation house that we witness - from afar - the Baptist War of 1831 in which the British quelled the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt. The historical detail is wrapped around a vivid, believable confusion of what freedom might, should and heartbreakingly, does mean for those born in slavery. And it is a testament to Levy's fine plotting that there's also a surprising but wholly satisfying gear shift halfway through when a new, idealistic, abolitionist overseer called Robert Goodwin arrives on the plantation and sparks a love triangle between himself, Mortimer (whom he marries) and July. July might have been a slave to Caroline, and then her servant, but she feels no remorse for her activities.

Of course, such entanglements rarely have happy endings, and in a longer book the repercussions it has on plantation life could have unfolded rather more gradually. Elsewhere, whole sections of July's otherwise full life are dealt with in "years passed" style. But in a way, that's the point of The Long Song. In the final chapter July's son asks why her story has ended without recounting more of the other struggles he regards as key. Her answer, memorably, is simple. "Why," she asks, "must I dwell upon sorrow?" It sums up Andrea Levy's charismatic, life-affirming character, and her captivating new book.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy is published by Headline at £18.99 (Dh110).