Day 1195: The Long Song

Cover for The Long SongSeveral years ago, I greatly enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island. So, I was happy when I saw that The Long Song was in both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects.

July is fathered upon her slave mother, Miss Kitty, by the overseer on Amity, a Jamaican sugar plantation. It is early in the 19th century, so July is a slave, too.

July and Miss Kitty are field slaves, but when July is nine years old, the master’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a fancy to her. She takes July away from Miss Kitty to train her as a house slave and calls her Marguerite. The novel is written as July’s memoir, as she recalls the final days of slavery on the island and its transition to freedom.

At first the tone of this novel bothered me. It seemed too sprightly and playful for subject matter that is sometimes appalling. It really tears into its white characters, too, who are portrayed at best as hypocrites but more often much worse. Eventually, though, its sly sense of humor got to me, and I laughed out loud. Still, I did not feel as involved by this novel as I did with Small Island.

Related Posts



The Quality of Mercy

Day 1164: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Cover for A Brief History of Seven KillingsI have so many thoughts about A Brief History of Seven Killings, but not many of them are positive. The novel is based around an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, the reasons behind the attempt, and the ramifications for 20 years later. It is about political skullduggery and the drug wars.

The novel begins days before an election in Jamaica. The political parties in the country have connections with gangs running specific areas of Kingston, and the areas of the city belonging to the wrong party get no services. So, an election is an excuse for an outbreak of violence.

Bob Marley, though, has been working with the dons of the two biggest gangs to bring about a peace concert. The CIA is worried about Jamaica turning communist if the JPL party is elected. One of the first narrators is the ghost of a politician who has already been killed in the battle for power. Out of what seems to be chaos comes Josey Wales, an enforcer for one of the gangs, who is more interested in getting involved with Columbian drug dealers than in following his gang’s agenda. The price for allowing him an in with Medellin—kill Bob Marley.

Although this beginning results in the flood of cocaine and crack into U. S. cities, I expected this novel to fit together more cleanly, a bit like Leif GW Persson’s trilogy about the assassination of a Swedish prime minister. It was much messier than that.

The novel was written from the points of view of many characters, most of whom are thugs. Much of the narrative is in Jamaican slang and a little hard to understand. All but one of the characters are abhorrent, and I had great difficulty reading the novel even though I was interested to see what would happen. The novel is brutal, the thoughts and conversations of most of its characters disgusting, and loaded with sexism. A lot more people are killed than seven (in fact, I wasn’t even completely sure which seven the title referred to), and at almost 700 pages, the novel is anything but brief. (I believe the title is meant ironically.) Occasionally, when reading some character’s narratives, especially the heroine addicts, I felt like screaming.

One Goodreads reviewer said the novel is not for the faint of heart. I am not generally squeamish, but I found the novel an agony to read, even though its subject matter is interesting. This novel was the 2015 winner of the Booker Prize. I am fairly sure that when it comes time for my article about which book I would have chosen, this won’t be it.

Related Posts

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End

Red Sorghum

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Day 790: Jade

Cover for JadeOf the Sally Watson books I rediscovered, Jade is one I haven’t read before. I’ve mentioned that Watson wrote several of her novels around a person from her own ancestry, but it is not clear to me if the outlines of each story are based on family legend or are just invented around the events of the time. This question becomes of special interest in regard to Jade, which is the least likely of Watson’s books to date, even if part of it is based on history.

Jade’s real name is Melanie Lennox, but she much prefers her old nickname. She is a rebellious girl completely taken up by her own ideas of right and wrong. She is especially incensed by slavery and women’s lack of rights, which makes early 18th century Williamburg an uncomfortable place for her and for her family, who doesn’t know what to do with her.

The last straw for Jade’s father is when he finds she has been sneaking off to meet Monsieur Maupin, an elderly Frenchman, for fencing lessons. Tired of beating her, her father ships her off to Jamaica to live with her aunt and uncle. With her goes her slave Joshua, whom she’s been trying to free since she was 10.

In Jamaica, she is disgusted by the slave market and the treatment of field slaves, so her aunt and uncle are surprised when she wants to buy a proud untamed African woman, whom she names Domino. But Jade sees something in Domino that reminds her of herself. In fact, Jade isn’t really getting along any better in Jamaica, but doesn’t stay there long.

Jade’s aunt and uncle hear of yellow fever on the island, so they dispatch Jade and her two slaves back to Virginia. They return on the same ship they came on, but this time it is loaded with slaves. Jade decides to try to free the slaves, in which effort she doesn’t realize she’s assisted by the sardonic second mate, Rory McDonald (whose grandmother was Kelpie from Witch of the Glen).

I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens next, but maybe I should have been. Their ship is attacked by pirates and she and Rory and some other crew members and the slaves decide to join the pirates. Well, Jade and Rory are taken on board unconscious, but like Elizabeth Swann of Pirates of the Caribbean, Jade at first decides it’s “a pirate’s life for me.” Only later does her view of the life become more nuanced.

The novel’s plot is unlikely, even though it is based on the life of the famous pirate, Anne Bonny (spelled Bonney in the novel), whose ship our characters end up on. And Jade is not strictly likable, her character being so full of self-righteousness and so unbending that she can’t tell a polite lie. Also, the novel tends much more to the preachy than those I’ve read so far of Watson’s.

Still, this novel is probably a good one for insights into the abuses of the time, while still providing plenty of adventure. Little feminists in the making will be sympathetic to the restrictions Jade struggles with, such as her dislike of what she must wear, her lack of rights as a woman, and the limits to what she’s allowed to do. I personally think she’s too much of a 20th century girl, but young girls won’t even think of that.

Related Posts

Witch of the Glens


Captain in Calico