Book Review

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

Welcome to a world turned upside down. One minute, Doris, from England, is playing hide-and-seek with her sisters in the fields behind their cottage. The next, someone puts a bag over her head and she ends up in the hold of a slave-ship sailing to the New World…

In this fantastically imaginative inversion of the transatlantic slave trade – in which ‘whytes’ are enslaved by black people – Bernardine Evaristo has created a thought-provoking satire that is as accessible and readable as it is intelligent and insightful. Blonde Roots brings the shackles and cries of long-ago barbarity uncomfortably close and raises timely questions about the society of today.

I picked up a copy of Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots shortly after reading her Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other last year. 

It’s a novel that is split into three sections. The first introduces the reader to Doris Scagglethorpe – slave name Omorenonwara – a slave who is about to embark upon an escape attempt and who provides her backstory in the process.  Born in England but kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of ten during a game of hide and seek (of all things), it’s a harrowing story and while Evaristo doesn’t linger on the hardships that Doris and those like her face, the matter-of-fact tone with which the story is narrated makes it all the more chilling.  It seems that Doris has been relatively (and it is only true in a relative sense) well cared for due to her “unusual intelligence”.  She acts as something of a secretary for her master and is spared the back-breaking work of the fields as a result.  That said, she has given birth to three children all of whom have been sold on, and she has no idea where they are or if they’re even alive.  She has no idea what has happened to her sisters and parents.  And the possibility of being punished for an error or misstep – actual or imagined – is a constant worry.  It’s heart-breaking to read.

The second section of the novel gives a different point of view, and we hear from Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (yes, his initials are KKK, and his slaves are branded with those initials) – Doris’s master and owner – directly.  He also shares his past from his first mission as the captain of a slave ship and how he rose to prominence from there.  It’s a narrative of opulence and opportunity and one can’t avoid the stark contrast between the two points of view that the reader is presented with.  He also shares his justification – such as it is – for these activities.  He believes that “whytes” live in abject poverty and that enslaving them is actually an improvement in their fortunes.  He believes that they need masters, unable to manage and develop on their own and that civilisation is just a pipedream for them.  I think that it’s unusual to get a slaver’s take in a novel about slavery – understandable, given it’s a particularly unpalatable perspective – and yet it works here in this inversion of history.  The third section goes on to deal with the aftermath of the first section and Doris’s attempted escape. 

The blurb mentions a world turned upside down but going into this novel I had no idea how literal that statement would prove to be. The inversion isn’t limited to “blaks” kidnapping and enslaving “whytes” – the world itself has been inverted too.  The map helps massively with understanding this, but Europe as we know it geographically is Aphrika in this novel and vice versa.  The climate too is inverted, with Europa appearing (somehow!) as a temperate equatorial zone while Aphrika is a blazing hot region in the Northern hemisphere. My advice is not to worry about it too much – it makes sense in the context of the novel, and the map helps significantly in orientating yourself in this world.

To add to the potential confusion, the time in which the novel is set is also difficult to pinpoint.  There are elements that feel distinctly 19th century as people travel by ship, horse, and carriage, and yet there are also references to subways and high rises which give the novel a distinctly modern air. 

The city of Londolo’s Tube trains had officially stopped burrowing many years ago when the tunnels started collapsing under the weight of the buildings above them. The city returned to the slower but more reliable modes of transport: carriages, horses, carts, camels, elephants, stagecoaches

It struck me as being a present day or maybe even a slightly futuristic setting in which slavery had continued and where circumstance had resulted in a return to more traditional modes of transport, resulting in a mishmash of modernity alongside an olde worlde feel.  It’s a little odd, but my advice is once again not to worry about it – you get used to it as you read, and Evaristo uses this setting to her advantage, making the underground railroad a literal mode of transport with sympathisers and abolitionists assisting escaped slaves through the disused underground network. 

Through Blonde Roots, Evaristo provides an in-depth examination of slavery.  It covers the way in which those who were enslaved were considered inferior beings – emotionally and in terms of intelligence – and not even belonging to the same race as their masters. We see the poor conditions in which slaves were kept in direct contrast to the opulent lifestyle of their masters, and the way in which slaves were encouraged to breed for the profitability of their masters.

I could see how the Ambossans had hardened their hearts to our humanity. They convinced themselves that we do not feel as they do, so that they do not have to feel anything for us. It’s very convenient and lucrative for them.

Blonde Roots is a brilliant novel that highlights the atrocities of slavery in an innovative and original way. It’s not more shocking because of this – it’s horrific, period – and yet it is an innovative and original way of communicating this dark past, and that’s no bad thing at all.   Somewhat surprisingly given the subject matter, there are elements of subtle humour to the narrative, and this is an easy read with a satirical edge.

1 comment

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: