Like most of you (I suspect) I keep lists and lists of books I want to read. My list is not necessarily a list of books I want to buy...though I'll buy some of them...but mostly I borrow from the local library or from friends and then once I've read a book if it's something I really like I might buy a copy (either for me or to pass on elsewhere). In truth I have several lists – prose books (fiction and non), poetry books, music CDs to try/buy, films to catch up on (and boy, am I behind on that one!) and finally books/films/music I must get hold of for Small Girl at some point too.
For a while now I have had 'anything by Bernardine Evaristo' on my books lists because...well, firstly I read something interesting by her in the magazine 'Mslexia' a while ago (when I used to subscribe...I stopped this year after subscribing since issue one). Also, even further back in time, I read a great article by Evaristo in a newspaper criticising some of the main poetry publishers (for their failure to publish many non-white poets as it happens... but I'm quite happy for anyone to criticise poetry publishers about anything really...some of them...the Carcanets and Picadors...I can't say they rock my world very often). So, as she was on my list, at some point I tried our local library for Evaristo books but found nothing. They're normally pretty good but when I first tried (maybe a year ago) they didn't have her 'Soul Tourists' (2005), or her 'The Emperor's Babe' 2001, or her 'Lara' 1997 (due to be rereleased next year..by Bloodaxe). All of these works are verse-novels and so a little unusual I suppose... maybe too much so for Angus libraries (though I did just recheck...in the interests of research...and they do now have the new book 'Blonde Roots'...the one I will get round to talking about any time soon!). But as the municipal shelves at that point were bare I just got on with reading other books from my lists and waited, most likely, for a big bookshop trip or something (I am a long way from big bookshops here and whilst I do use Amazon it's not that often...especially since I learned more about how much they pay publishers...).
In the meantime however Evaristo was working on a new project (or more likely lots of new projects – she strikes me as a woman with huge energy!) and this year she published a new book 'Blonde Roots'(Hamish Hamilton). This is a prose novel (not verse) and it is about slavery...but with a difference. In this book the slaves are white and the masters black...it is history rewritten with 'Aphrikans' taking slaves from 'Europa', 'blak' people treating 'whytes' as goods to be traded and as inferior, inhuman and beneath consideration. When I first heard about this book I remember just thinking 'Wow! What a great idea!' I don't think I've ever heard of anybody coming up with this particular idea for a book before...have you? And yet it's one of those great, seems-obvious-when-you-think-about-it ideas. Why has nobody written this before? Imagine the film! Imagine how you could horrify white right-wing relatives by even THINKING about giving them this book for xmas ('white people not in control of the whole world– are you mad?' 'Not any more...')!
It sounded so interesting that I added 'Blonde Roots' to my books list...but this time with a few extra asterisks and underlines. A short while later I was doing some on-line shopping (at WH Smiths, as it happens, because they all do free p & p now that Amazon do it) and I thought...'do you know what...early xmas present to self...I can't wait any more...I'm just going to buy it'. I just couldn't wait to see what Evaristo had done with this biggest of huge ideas (I imagine the likes of PJ O'Rourke might call it a 'liberal wet dream'...remember him, by the way – 'Rolling Stone', 'Republican Party Reptile' and all that? I interviewed him once. He was dull).
So...back to the book...are you on the edge of your seats? Has Evaristo taken that great idea and written a great book? Is it life-changing, earthshattering, a total knockout?
Well, firstly I would say – buy it (or borrow it) and read it for yourself because it really is a very interesting and unusual book. I read it in a couple of days – mainly, I think, because it's engrossing, fast-moving and strangely easy to read (considering some of the gruesome details...this is the slave trade...nothing very pleasant happens...). In fact I read it so quickly that I may well go back and read it again some time soon. Evaristo writes as if her pen is on fire – the enthusiastic details of clothes and food and places and people shooting out, white-hot – so the prose fairly whooshes along, like flames through a dry forest, and you really do get carried along with it. I'm not going to retell the whole story for you or anything (I can't be doing with reviews like that...) but it is exciting - that much I will give away.
Another reason I read 'Blonde Roots' so avidly is that I found how it was written as unusual as what it was written about. When I first read an outline of the story I suppose I formed in my head an idea of what it might well be like (don't we all do that when we read a précis or a review of a book, especially a novel?). I had imagined something that felt like a historical novel, something a bit like the very good 'Voyageurs' by Margaret Elphinstone (that I read, and then reviewed here back on 18th October) - there would be archaic language, there would be period costumes, there would be suffering...all with that clever, multi-levelled twist that might well make some readers see slavery from another angle. I suppose I thought too that it would probably be a BBC series by the spring (reusing the costumes, barely letting the paint dry on the 'Little Dorrit' sets before they were recycled for the new season's set-piece) . But the biggest surprise, for this reader anyway, was that it is not really like a historical novel at all in some ways...it does not fit into any ready-made slot. And this makes sense when you think about it. Why should she write this story the way anybody expects? She is writing, in many ways, about the world turned upside down so why should her novel be script-ready for the BBC Dickens department after all (and let's not even mention that 'Devil's Whore' series that's on Channel 4 just now...have you ever seen anything more ridiculous? I fully expect to see Cromwell amusing himself with a copy of 'Penthouse' in the next episode...)? In 'Blonde Roots' Evaristo has even changed the sun's behaviour because on page 61 'the weak sun started its weary descent towards the east' (my favourite line in the book...so matter-of-fact, so matter-of-not-at-all-fact) so why should she do anything the way a silly old reader like me expects her to? I love it when writers work this way...take the ball, run with it, have no intention whatsoever of giving the thing back...
So whereas I was expecting to be unsettled, surprised, provoked by the racial aspects of the story (and that does happen...it's a provoking book throughout...not one lazy line) in actual fact this novel unsettled me in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on to begin with. There is the very strange feel she creates, for example, by having the story set in a kind of past-but-not-past. Yes, the 'whyte' slaves are transported, squashed in their own shit, in ships (not planes...there are no aeroplanes so the setting is definitely past-like) but the language is not anything you might recognise as olde worlde and that's...kind of odd (well, I found it odd anyway). The language is very varied (all kinds of interesting dialects and wordplay) but there is definitely a lot of our modern world language in the mix too. It comes out particularly in asides or afterthoughts from the main character ('whyte' Doris..or Omorenomwara to use her slave name) and often just when something really horrible is happening. I wondered a lot as I read this book why Evaristo had put some of this very modern language in...and I think there might be several reasons. Firstly I think it means the modern reader (whatever their colour or race) identifies with the slavery experience very directly...you can't push all the horror (and there is plenty of that..plenty of torture and cruelty) away with a 'yes, it must have been terrible' because the main character talks like you, your friends, the people you know now...at least some of the time. Also you don't quite know where you are as a reader...is it past, present, future...is it history, fantasy, science fiction? Then Evaristo throws humour in too...just when things are at their nastiest...it's really very different, very unexpected, simply not cricket, somehow. All this confusion helps the novel do its job very well – it helps turn the world upside down, inside out, back to front. It's symbolic, on many levels, I imagine, and it certainly makes the novel feel like nothing you've ever read before. Since I read it last week it has worked its way quite thoroughly into my thoughts and wonderings. Take last night - we've been recording and watching the very interesting Simon Schama history series 'The American Future' (much more worth your TV time than the silly old 'Devil's Whore'!) and last night we watched the programme that talked about slavery and black churches and the civil rights movement in the USA. So much of it made me think of 'Blonde Roots', of clever points that Evaristo makes in her slavery story, of how she shows brilliantly what you can do with history if you put your mind to it. I might come back to 'The American Future' in another post maybe...that bit about Fanny Lou Hamer singing on the bus...singing, singing...you know how I'm always going on about singing...
But in the meantime get yourselves a copy of 'Blonde Roots'...however you manage it...because it is ambitious and challenging and it will make you think hard about all sorts of things (about the differences between people, about how our world is and why, about how people have treated people and how they might treat each other in the future) but also I think it will make you think even more than you already do about what writers write (and why and how). 'Blonde Roots' has been received well in the UK so far (hey, it's in the Angus libraries...she's really arrived!) and it's published in the USA in early 2009 (where I imagine it will make a fairly huge splash of one kind or another). To find out how it gets on keep an eye on Evaristo's very interesting and lively blog. Whatever will she write next I wonder...and will 'Blonde Roots' win any prizes over the coming months and years? I think it might. I think it probably should.
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