This amazing novel brings you, perhaps reluctantly but immediately to Jamaica 1831, directly into the life on a large sugar cane plantation and the life of both slaves and white rulers. The time is just before the British Empire frees all its slaves, we witness a brutal revolt and we get to experience the freedom given by the Parliament when they passed the abolition of slavery act and its attendant results for both slave and massa.
The book is packaged with a preface and an afterword supposedly written by Thomas Kinsman, a former black London printer who returns to Jamaica in 1898 where he was born before being shipped off as a rejected infant by his mother. This educated and well dressed gentleman interprets the tale from time to time giving advice to his mother, the author of the book. She writes the story but is full of concern about its style since the story is complex. Thus she switches from first person to third person in order to keep us, the reader, engaged and not turned off by unnecessary detail, often boring in historic accounts. On the other hand, she must bring detail to the tale so that you, again you the reader, can absorb the horrors of that life lived by slaves.
July is old when she tells the tale but the story begins with her birth, actually it begins with the violent rape of her mother Kitty, a slave raped by the white overseer of Plantation Amity. However, July is not always present in the telling: when the tale is told in the third person it is in the past, when it is told in the first person, it is in the present. The old woman is more sophisticated than was the girl and the house slave who speaks in Jamaican patois.
All levels of plantation life are given to us: the social gulf among the house and the field slaves, the casual brutality of white over black, the jealousy of status in the black world among gradations of color and of course the Church and its hypocrisy, the man of god who obeys his marital vows but can enjoy sex with the nigger under the same vows.
The story is not easy to enter. I flailed about for a goodly while trying to “get it” between the relationships, the languages and the switches of time. When the tale was done, I loved the work that had gone into it and felt it was more than worth while. Brilliant construct, an exciting read. Andrea Levy, grew up black, born in black London of Jamaican (but mixed with jewish and irish some time ago) parents. Her father was a veteran of the war who decided to immigrate to Britain after the war. This is her first novel set in Jamaica and it has perfect pitch. (not deliberate ) One feels that she is intimate as only one who has suffered and lived this tale can be with such a setting and such a history.