Cheeky, moving and sometimes tragic, this is a novel both of great power and mischief. Levy’s novel gives a voice to those who left few if any written documents; the slaves of the plantations who were given their limited freedom. This is not a grim tale of unrelenting cruelty, though there is oppression and bad treatment of people who had been slaves from birth. This is a tale that moves along with misunderstandings, some pain and victimisation, but it is undoubtedly lightened by the character of Miss July, appropriating small objects, misleading her hapless mistress, and finding a way to survive. She is an unreliable narrator, arguing with her son who asks her to write down her memories, giving alternative versions of certain events. In another way she is so reliable, however, for in this (fictional) account she has no author’s skills or ambitions to shape or define her story or her way of telling it. Her honest use of language and description has all the naivety of innocent truth, and a realism that only fiction can provide. I had picked it for our book group – it was unanimously praised by all members.
This book opens with an explanation of its writing from Thomas, who reveals that his mother had felt compelled to relate to him her life story, usually when he was busy. As her persistence had worn him down, he suggested that she write it in a small book. Although unusually for a freed slave, she was able to write, he has to assure her that his professional editing and typesetting skills would “make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language”. So she sets out to write of her experiences as a child and young woman during the period when the slaves of the plantations on the island were freed. From the beginning she gives a harsh account of her conception from the forced actions of Tam Dewar, the white slave overseer, on Kitty, a powerfully built field slave. Her birth is described in several ways, but it is certain that Kitty took care of her until as a small girl, she is taken up on a whim by Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner John Howarth’s widowed sister newly arrived on the island. Caroline renames her Marguerite, and tries to train her as a maid, but with limited success as July takes every opportunity to ignore, win small rebellious victories, and generally assert her identity. There is a night of change, when it seems that the slaves have banded together to overthrow their owners. As July savours for a moment a new freedom, there are some terrible events which demonstrate the strength of parental love. There are new things to come in the life of the slaves and especially July, and throughout she complains and comments on her son and his family with a pained affection.
This is a book which describes some grim situations, interrupted by July’s mischief, days of sunshine and light, and incidents of July’s writing. It contrives to be touching and moving, while giving a voice to those women and men who found a sort of freedom, and depicting the problems of those who had previously been able to order their lives and even deaths. The problems of slavery dominate the novel, but there are also problems when they are freed, not least for the former owners who are left with many challenges. This is truly a wonderful book, and I recommend its storytelling, its sometimes breath-taking audacity, and generally its spirited style of giving a lively account of world changing events.
It was really sad to note that as this book was due to appear at our book group that the news came through of Andrea Levy’s death. Having managed to watch the television programme on BBC 1 in which she spoke movingly of her life and uncertain entry into writing, I knew that she was immensely talented and a down to earth person. We had also enjoyed “Small Island” a while ago, so we were saddened to hear that no new books would be coming from this author. We will be looking out her earlier books.