Updated: Oct 19, 2020
I said at the start of this month that I was going to do a blog post about Evaristo’s Blonde Roots and then I read her book Mr Loverman and I felt like to only write about one of her books would be a disservice. You know when you read a novel and you think- why is no one talking about this? Well, that’s how I felt about both of these.
Of course, since the success of Girl, Woman, Other Bernadine Evaristo’s work has burst into the mainstream but I can’t help being in shock that she wasn’t appreciated earlier. It would be ignorant to ignore the cultural issues here- a Black, British, Woman writing predominantly about the African diaspora, Evaristo’s work faced the lack of inclusion in the publishing industry face on. She won the booker prize in 2019 yet had to share it with Margaret Atwood- both astounding writers but it cannot go unnoticed that the first Black Woman author and Black British Author to win the prize had to share it.
2020, for me, is the year of Bernadine Evaristo. I read Girl, Woman, Other in the now long distant month of May and fell in love. (see my review here- https://amyflorencebush.wixsite.com/readbetweenthelines/post/girl-woman-other-by-bernadine-evaristo-review ) In August, I read both Blonde Roots and Mr Loverman and came out of them knowing that Evaristo could write anything and I’d love it. My thoughts on Blonde Roots were numerous I spent several days trying to piece together what I thought but once I read Mr Loverman, I knew exactly why it was I loved her writing- she writes things no other writer would dare tackle.
Blonde Roots takes the slave trade and flips it on its head- what if White Europeans were the slaves instead? A fictional, yet true story then is set in motion as we follow one slave's experience and desire to escape. The standout part of Blonde Roots for me is how daring and clever it is- it at once educates and plays with your mind spinning the reader into a dialogue with themselves about privilege. We know what we are reading is not technically real, it is a story, the wrong people are the perpetrators. We are angry, we are sad, we squirm, we cry at a ‘fictional story’ that happened. I had to pause many times within this novel and ask myself- why do I feel this way? And answering honestly, I realised- this reversal makes it palatable to a white audience. Evaristo knew what she was doing, and it is clever and thought-provoking all at once. By enacting a tug of war between a palatable ‘story’ and real-life events the reader is educated and interrogated and finally is forced to understand the background to years of ongoing oppression.
Meanwhile, Mr Loverman focusses on a closeted gay seventy-four-year-old man called Barrington Jedidiah Walker, who is originally from Antigua but has lived in London since the 1960s. Spanning a wide range of topics Mr Loverman is at its core a story about living your truth. With a typically stunning style, Evaristo captures a portrait of an older gay, Black, Caribbean couple and all the nuances that comes with Barrington’s inability to accept his sexuality. Looking back through every book I have read I cannot think of a single older protagonist- let alone one in a relationship, let alone a non- heterosexual one, let alone a Black one. Barrington is allowed to be flawed- Evaristo never strays into idealising him- he is misogynistic, an alcoholic and has internalised homophobia in bounds. Yet, he is also loving, keen to improve himself and hilarious. His long-suffering wife is also an extremely flawed character. Of course, we feel sorry for her- Barrington’s behaviour is far from perfect- however, near the start of the novel we see her resort to domestic violence towards him- which there is never an excuse for. There is a striking part where Barrington exclaims that he simply wouldn’t tell anyone because men don’t do that. For me, tMr Loverman with all its standout features is a perfect example of Evaristo straying into territory that other writers simply wouldn’t go near, and in doing so she is the perfect writer.
So, is this all that makes her writing good? No, but it certainly helps. One, representation matters- it means something that she writes worlds and characters that others don’t go near. As a white woman, there is no shortage of characters that look, sound and exist similarly to me, but unfortunately that can’t be said for many other individuals- a fact that needs to be sorted. But secondly, her work provokes thought by doing this. She opens doors to questions and debates that would otherwise not exist- she makes us think and doesn’t care if this is uncomfortable. To me, that is what great writing is. A story, amazing characters, beautiful writing is all well, and good but great writing comes from those who spark our imagination even if we don’t want to be set alight