I'd heard of Bernadine Evaristo from the pages of Mslexia but read none until the Orange longlist brought Blonde Roots to my attention.
I think I mentioned the run of US, Deep South, Northern Badlands reading that this list has catapulted me into and if I'm honest I'm all done in with reading slave narratives and racism after this year's Orange. It's such important reading and I feel rightly battered and bruised by it all because it makes for such harrowing reading, I have a few more lined up which I'll get to eventually but if you think you might have the energy to tackle just one slave narrative perhaps consider Blonde Roots. It really is the very cleverest slant on what is becoming a familiar fictional subject, one that bears telling and re-telling, but finding fresh ways of doing so are becoming increasingly elusive.
Turn the tables and imagine the transatlantic slave trade in reverse, Africans are the masters and Europeans their slaves and so you have the premise for a book that, despite its incredibly serious subject matter, manages to defamiliarise the familiar and force a complete reconsideration.
With that comes an overwhelming sense of shame and suddenly a book that brings new meaning to the 'walk a mile in their shoes' thinking and just quite how Bernadine Evaristo has managed this is astonishing; an imagination so vivid that I fell into step with the book and just marveled at every twist and turn on the page.
Expect to have to suspend disbelief and then just wade in, I sort of knew where I was but felt constantly discombobulated and off-balance at the same time and be under no illusion, Bernadine Evaristo does not spare her white slaves from the horrors and the violence, it's stomach-churning-eyes-shut reading at times.
The UK is no longer the mighty Empire, but according to the map which also disorientates and confuses from the off, a little tiny insignificant island off the shores of Aphrika and called the UK of Great Ambossa (think about it) with the capital Londolo. This somehow served to demonstrate a key theme surrounding the whole sense of displacement and loss, that unbelonging to a homeland endured by the slaves. I was suddenly made to think about it, how did you know where on earth (literally) you were going when you were incarcerated on a ship and transported?
Young Doris Scagglethorpe soon to be renamed Omorenomwara is captured form the Cabbage Coast of Europa and transported to the capital of Ambossa, Londono
Places like To Ten Ha Ma, m'Aidura Valley, Wata Lo , the Temz sound familiar don't they?
Lulled along by the cleverness there are regular high voltage shocks administered as the realities of the slave trade are described in detail, the capture, the journey on the ships, the punishments, the hardship and when Doris eventually ends up in the West Japanese Islands of the coast of Amarika as punishment for ...I won't tell you what, things get much much worse, put to work in the sugar plantations true degradation awaits. But there is also love and hope, and dreams of the future and there is humour in adversity which never goes amiss here as you know.
This writing reminds me of those early days of reading Margaret Atwood, the thrill of the 'different'.
I clearly remember that buzz when I first read The Handmaid's Tale, the way a writer can take a known world, perhaps a familiar history and make it unknown, yet still somehow knowable and recognizable (are you with me there?) The writerly ingredients and techniques that Bernadine Evaristo combines here, fact, fiction, anger and indignation, love and loss, satire and a huge dose of wit and humour give shape and form to one of the most intriguingly clever books on this year's Orange longlist and I can't hide my disappointment at its omission from the shortlist... so I won't...I really was disappointed this one didn't make the cut.
The vibrant and exciting writing talent that abounds in Blonde Roots really deserves recognition and I shall be looking out for much more from Bernadine Evaristo, each time hopefully knowing I'm likely to get an extraordinary reading experience.