“Slavery lasted three hundred years,” says Andrea Levy, her London accent matter-of-fact. “It wasn’t just a short sharp shock, it was a social system – one of the worst humankind have ever come to, but it was a system, so I wanted to try and understand the cultural aspect, the nitty gritty, the day-to-day of it.”
Her new book, The Long Song, is set in Jamaica on a sugar plantation named Amity, as the British Empire’s slave trade was in its protracted death throes. It is narrated by former slave July, an old woman who is living out her days in comfort unimaginable to the younger version of herself, a house slave whose life becomes precariously enmeshed with those of her owners while also negotiating her identity within the slave community.
Levy read widely to recreate life in the 1800s. “There weren’t many testimonies from people who were enslaved…if there were five, that’s not very much – but there weren’t that many. But there are a hell of a lot of accounts by planters, abolitionists, governors and planters’ wives, and I realised you can read between the lines, and hear what they’re saying about someone and imagine what someone else is thinking about them.”
An unavoidable reality of slavery is violence, and Levy doesn’t shrink from scenes of merciless cruelty towards slaves, taken from actual accounts: “I couldn’t make those up – I wish I had.” But The Long Song is not unrelentingly horrific, nor is it a tale of victimisation. Instead there is resilience, small triumph and even playfulness, like when a slave lays the table with a bed sheet instead of a tablecloth.
Levy is also intent on showing that the slave owners weren’t all simply villains. “They went to the Caribbean and it made them into brutes. We didn’t just ship psychopaths there.” Liberal-minded Robert Goodwin, who arrives to oversee the plantation, has a desire to treat slaves compassionately that is slowly worn away by the weight of generations of disrespect and cruelty.
Levy’s background wasn’t always this significant to her. Growing up on a London council estate, “I was rather embarrassed about being from Jamaica, it wasn’t something I had pride in.” Her parents migrated in the 1940s: “They wanted us to get on with our lives, not really think about Jamaica.” Levy is the only of her siblings to have visited. “When I started writing I realised that my heritage is actually very interesting, that there were stories to tell that hadn’t been told before. Now I bless that heritage, but [her connection to her ancestry] is still a journey for me, and every book that I write is another leg of the journey.” Her most recent novel, Small Island is about a group of Jamaicans living in England during WWII, is now a BBC mini-series.
Asked for a concluding comment, Levy is thoughtful. “As long as you get in that it’s three hundred years. I can’t say that enough. It was so shocking to me when I realised. Three hundred years!”