The fifth novel by Levy—whose Small Island won Britain’s Orange Prize and was Whitbread Book of the Year—is set in 19th-century Jamaica and covers the last years of slavery and its long, miserable aftermath.
July is fathered by a brutish overseer named Tam Dewar and born to a field slave named Kitty. She’s seized from her mother, renamed “Marguerite,” brought into the plantation house and trained to be the housemaid, chief aide and ultimately confidante to her English mistress, Caroline Mortimer, a plump, overwhelmed young widow. The whites ruthlessly stomp out the “Baptist War” rebellion of 1832—in a harrowing scene, July, cowering beneath her master’s bed alongside the freeman she’s just slept with, witnesses an act of violence—but the end of slavery is nigh, and the institution sputters on for only a few years before abolition. The changes of 1838 seem at first merely nominal, but then a gentle new overseer, the 26-year-old son of English clergy, arrives on Amity Plantation. He promises to persuade the blacks to work for him without using brutality. They’ll plant, cut and haul sugarcane, he thinks, out of enlightened self-interest. Soon the devout optimist is in trouble. First he falls in love with July and tries to resist both the emotion and its attendant lust. Eventually he succumbs, and though he marries Caroline Mortimer for cover, his true spouse is the mulatto he installs in a downstairs bedroom. He treats July with an affection his wife can’t fail to notice or to envy. But as his utopian schemes unravel, so does his relationship with July; racial thinking wins out, and he and Caroline flee for England. Told in retrospect by the elderly July, who’s cajoled and sometimes corrected by her son Thomas, now a wealthy printer, the novel also provides an elegant allegory of storytelling.
The frame is skimpy, and the book’s moral vision can be schematic, but this is a subtly observed, beautifully written, structurally complex novel—an impressive follow-up to Small Island.