I have never read a huge amount of books, either of a factual nature or otherwise, that deal with the issue of slavery and I don’t really know why. It is a greatly disturbing subject that nevertheless had me fascinated at junior school, yet my learning has never really gone beyond that. After reading a positive review on another blog (can’t remember which or you would get a mention, sorry!) I decided that I had to give Andrea Levy a go … stories that follow the lives of strong women always appeal for obvious reasons.
At the beginning of this tale we are introduced to an elderly lady, July, who is in the process of writing her memoir and her son, Thomas Kinsman, who intends to publish her experiences as a slave upon a Jamaican plantation and educate those who read it of the hardships July and her peers were forced to endure in the first half of the nineteenth century. Interjections and arguments between Thomas and his mother as she is writing this book are then charmingly interwoven into the text as we read on…
July’s situation is precarious from her birth; the product of a brutal act performed by the overseer of Amity plantation upon her Mother (Kitty) for his amusement, her life is set to be a short and hard one working with the other slaves in the cane fields. One day, seeing this pretty young girl walking with her mother along the dusty track to the market, Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner’s sister who has recently arrived from England, decides that she will take July off her mother’s hands and keep her as a house servant she calls ‘Marguerite’ (and almost as a kind of pet, I felt, at the beginning of the book) much to Kitty’s despair.
This young woman is living through extraordinary times, yet always stifled by her flabby mistresses’ constant whims and need for attention. News is arriving from England that the King has ordered the abolition of slavery and the workers of Amity gradually begin to make plans for what they will do with their new found freedom, causing their masters, in their panic, to commit the most atrocious crimes. Even the most well-intentioned are eventually turned into monsters as they struggle to keep their businesses going with workers who will suffer no longer.
Perhaps I have always been turned off literature that focuses on slavery as I felt it could only be depressing in nature, and that was certainly what originally turned Andrea Levy herself away from travelling back to 19th century Jamaica. However, she has managed to create a book that, whilst it certainly does not trivialise what is essentially a very serious and harrowing subject, the natural humour and realistic characters she creates lend the novel a levity that allows us to access this vivid, exotic world she has created more easily. I warmed to our straightforward narrator from the first page and I knew that this warmth would grow as the story went on and Levy’s writing (I was surprised to learn that she only started writing in her thirties, after taking a creative writing course) is so utterly evocative of the Caribbean that you can feel the heat beating down on your shoulders and the dust in your eyes as July walks around the plantation she calls her home.
The young July turns out to be a difficult character. She does have her flaws and I found her particularly disagreeable in certain scenes where she acts almost as a kind of accomplice to her new master as he strides around the plantation, attempting to force the other slaves to work. However, we ask ourselves, what is a girl to do? She is a realistic character in a very difficult and precarious situation. Rather than becoming a stereotypical heroine, strong and steadfast in her difficult position, she is quick to anger, quick to laugh and sometimes presents a cool detachment which could give us cause to wonder whether she does have it so bad and whether she does care about her lot and the fate of her fellow slaves after all. I believe she does. July suffers from the degree of physical and emotional turmoil in her life that you would expect from a book dealing with slaves and slave owners and, as you want from such a book, you put this down first of all wanting more (as a huge chunk of her life following the departure of the plantation owners and the liberation of the slaves is entirely missed out) and second of all realising that, whatever trivial things are bothering you in your life, things really aren’t so bad after all.
I want to be inspired by the novels I read and the women I read about, and this certainly inspired me.