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The Long Song by Andrea Levy

(Headline Fiction, $38.99)

Having just been to the American South and seen first-hand the remnants of the brutal world of slavery, the subject has been much on my mind. To be hunched over in a tiny room where a group of 10 might once have been crammed until their master – their owner – divided parents and children and literally sold them down the river? That brought home not only how cruel and wrong slavery was, but how incomprehensible.

How could one human think they could buy and sell another, and treat them with less regard than the family dog in the interim? How did that traded person survive? Why didn’t they run away? What happened to them?

oy lack of understanding can’t entirely be put down to stupidity (and Gone with the Wind) because the sad truth is that there aren’t that many first-hand real-life accounts written by slaves. Reading and writing weren’t high on their to-do lists, and even after they were freed, they didn’t necessarily want to talk about it. Nor did many of their descendants.

So to some degree, their stories have been lost. Which is where Andrea Levy comes in. A celebrated British author of Jamaican descent, she brings slave girl July to life and weaves her a tale full of the misery you might expect to find on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the last turbulent years of slavery – but also full of unexpected joy, irrepressible mischief and great humour. Yes, humour!

This book triumphs in opening the reader’s eyes to a real-life historical horror in an entertaining, compassionate and completely life-affirming way.

I don’t know how she does it but I do know why she did it. “Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,” she says on her website (www.andrealevy.co.uk). Indeed, in The Long Song she pieces together life the way it would have been, “warts and all”, and hands it back to the descendants of those brave slavery survivors who didn’t want to talk about it. In other words, she finds their stories

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