“Reader, I must whisper you a truth. Come, put your ear close to this page,” writes July, a slave turned memoirist who reveals the terrors of her past in The Long Song (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Andrea Levy’s bitingly original novel of slavery in colonial Jamaica. July has much in common with Zarité, aka Tété, the ex-slave at the center of Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea (Harper), a lush epic of racism and rebellion which begins in Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti).
Old women now, July and Tété were born of violence, their mothers raped by white men. Both were house slaves on sugar plantations. Most strikingly, both women—like so many whose suffering will never be known—tell important, intimate stories of tragedy and resilience. Allende’s long-abused Tété finds solace in her z’étoile, her ungovernable soul, and in her loas, the African spirits that guide her. Levy’s cruder July gets her kicks from sabotage. July confronts grim realities with a prickly humor (“When slaves turn wild, they are useless to all but worms”), while Tété shows us that “freedom was not free, you had to fight for it.” In a culture of violence, she proves that ingenuity can be as heroic as love.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of More.