If you’ve read novels about slavery before, you’re not going to see much new here. The Long Song is a competent book, and has the distinction of being set in Jamaica, but my ultimate reaction was “meh.”
July is born on a sugar cane plantation in the 19th century, the daughter of a field slave and an overseer (who never acknowledges her). As a girl, she’s taken from her mother to work in the house as maid to the plantation owner’s sister. The book chronicles her life--told from her perspective as an old, free woman living with her son’s family. She tells her story mostly in the third person (and occasionally hopping into other people’s heads as well), with some present-day interjections.
While I didn’t much like it, I won’t say this is an awful book. It provides a decent picture of the place and time, as well as an overview of Jamaican history in the first half of the nineteenth century. And it felt authentic. It’s successful at not being too depressing, but at the cost of skipping over most of July’s life (she doesn’t want to talk about the most difficult parts) and including lots of bodily-functions humor.
For me, the biggest problem with the book was that I never really connected with the characters; we don’t truly get inside even July’s head. For instance, it was unclear whether the complete incompetence of all the house slaves was an intentional act of rebellion, due to apathy, or just simple ineptitude. And when July has an affair with a white man, it’s initially motivated by self-interest, but I was left guessing as to whether she ever came to care for him or not. Readers have to take the young July as she appears on the surface--which means not very smart and always focused on the moment’s pleasures.
The book is written in Jamaican patois, which took some getting used to but does make it feel authentic. It did get a bit better as it went along, and I especially liked the freed slaves’ face-off against the new plantation owner, but mostly I just wanted it to be done. If you want to read about slavery and aren’t interested in Jamaica specifically, try Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Edward Jones’s The Known World instead.