The Long Song

July is born into slavery in nineteenth century Jamaica, and plucked aged nine from her mother's arms to be the plaything of her new mistress, Caroline. She - fat, ignorant and white - has come from England to live at Amity, her brother's sugar plantation. Andrea Levy's compelling latest novel traces the interlocked lives of these two women who live through an emancipation that is, in its way, just as brutal as the slavery that went before.

The Long Song is impeccably researched, and the facts of history are constantly up for debate. July, an old woman now, is writing her story for her son, who interjects with queries and quibbles, testing the veracity of her story. At one point there is a pause in the narrative as July - comically - weighs the accuracy of several historical tracts about the slave rebellion of 1832.

This serious novel is full of light touches and captures the rhythms of Jamaican creole beautifully. But Levy's most enviable talent is for writing dramatic scenes and the tensions around the slave rebellion are crystallised in a memorable moment. July and her free black lover have had sex in her master's bed and when he returns from fighting the rebels they scramble to hide under it. There is a bang: he has shot himself, and falls to the floor. As other whites hurry to the scene, with the two lovers still under the bed, the growing inevitability that they will be blamed for this death becomes unbearable.

Levy has a rare ability to channel the maelstrom of history into the most intimate of human dramas. Her previous novel, Small Island, was exemplary in this respect: it explored the rapidly changing relationship between Britain and its colonies - and between races - during the Second World War, but it did so on a domestic scale, through the moving story of a few characters.

In Small Island, racism was often of a half-conscious and patronising kind, but The Long Song takes us back to a time when the exploitation of blacks by whites was frank and ruthless. When emancipation arrives at Amity in 1834, a new and more complex form of oppression comes into being. Robert Goodwin, an overseer with high Christian ideals and a hatred of slavery, promises much with his bold claim that "the African stands firmly within the family of man". He even falls passionately in love with a black woman: July.

Yet Goodwin's pious belief in the hardworking, obedient negro is at odds with the plans of his free employees. Addressing them, he makes the hypocritical paternalism of the free capitalist plantation clear: "All of you were too long in shackles to really understand what is now in your best interests". Their best interests are apparently served by six-day weeks of backbreaking labour in the cane fields, just to pay the rent.

Like the best historical fiction, The Long Song opens a new perspective on the past in order to interrogate the present.

The Long Song
Andrea Levy
Headline Review, 320pp, £18.99

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.