I started this novel a year or more ago, but quickly got irritated with it and put it aside. Why I picked it up again this week I can't say, but this time I read it to the end and was quite rivetted by the story it tells.
Reader, how can this be? as our narrator, July, would say. And therein, I'm afraid, lies the problem, for me at least. As I'm sure everybody knows, because I suspect I'm the last person ever to have read this novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2010, the story is mainly narrated by an 80 year old woman who was a born into slavery. She has been urged to write it by her son Thomas, a wealthy and well-educated printer, with whom she has been reunited, having given him up soon after his birth. In fact the story is framed by explanations from the son, and throughout the narrative there are interruptions for July to recount her arguments with him about the writing. And, of course, July writes in her native patois, except when she is reporting the speech of her white superiors, when she is perfectly able to reproduce their grammar and vocabulary.
Now, I suppose there's nothing wrong with all this, but I'm afraid it got rather on my nerves from time to time. I find any dialect writing rather hard going, and I could have done without the interruptions, which didn't seem to me to add much, and I wasn't entirely sure why Levy decided to include them. But as there's quite a lot of to-ing fro-ing through various time periods, perhaps they are there to support that? Anyway, the story is a long and complex one, and it could, of course, have been told in a straightforward third person narrative. But that would have lost what I think is one of the most successful aspects of the novel -- the fact that July herself, if not an entirely unreliable narrator, is filtering events through her own sometimes skewed perception.
Anyway, enough of all that for the moment. I read one review on Amazon that said something like "this is not a novel about racism or slavery". Well, of course, it is just that. It's set in Jamaica and the main events take place in the 1830s, so the abolition of slavery, in 1834, is central to the events of the plot. We learn of July's birth, the result of her mother's rape by a white overseer; of her early years working in the fields beside the other slaves; of her catching the eye of the woman who owns the plantation, who takes her in, changes her name to Marguerite, and trains her up to be her companion. Then there's the conception and birth of her son, her decision to leave the baby on the doorstep of the enlightened Baptist minister, who takes him in and brings him up as his own. And later there is July's love affair with her mistress's new husband, the birth of a second child, and the terrible circumstances under which the child is stolen from her. All of this is painful enough, but the story's context is sometimes almost unbearable in its revelations of what happened after abolition. Although initially this event is greeted by the slaves with great jubilation, this soon turns to anger and despair as they discover that their masters still expect them to work as hard as before for very little pay. Presumably based closely on real events, this is a shameful passage in the history of the island and indeed of the British in general, whose behaviour towards the freed slaves is really shocking. Even Thomas's story is quite upsetting, for though he comes out of it OK in the end, he meets the most appalling prejudice both in London and Jamaica on account of the colour of his skin.
A few years ago I read and loved Andrea Levy's earlier novel, Small Island, which was also very well televised on the BBC. This one is much more ambitious, and though I have a few quibbles I am really glad to have read it and it's left me with lots to think about.