I have chosen to start the On my shelf book series with four novels by my favourite writer, British novelist and 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo. My interest in Evaristo's novels was sparked in 2011. Then an undergrad, I attended a literature class on novels about British slavery. We read her novel Blonde Roots (2009) and I was completely sold from then on. If you have read at least one of the novels I am about to introduce below, you might just understand why I think Bernadine Evaristo is, in my opinion, excellent at what she does. There will be no spoilers!
1. The Emperor's Babe (2001)
It is difficult to imagine leading women in legends and films about the Roman Empire without having a specific image of Cleopatra. Women in films about the Roman Empire tend to look like Sophia Loren in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or the Jessica Green in the short-lived Netflix series The Roman Empire (2016) both. The fictional character of Zuleika does not fit this popular Hollywood image. She is of Nubian heritage. Her parents flee from what we know now as North and South Sudan. Zuleika is not only beautiful, witty and smart (she is a poet), she is also a young fun-loving girl. Part of the plot surrounds her love affair with the Roman Emperor Septimius.
Evaristo's novel is narrated in verse and is coloured by witty jokes with a melange of linguistic code-switchings from from Latin to modern London jargon to West African pidgin. The novel's leading lady Zuleika marries into the upper class and later has an affair with an aristocrat. She hangs out with aristocrats, kind of like, Meghan Markle. However, the Londinium in which Zuleika is born and raised and in which she climbs up the social rang seems to be more accepting of cultural difference. The Emperor's Babe tells a rarely told or perhaps new story about the mundane life in London during the Roman Empire. And for a change, this story is told by a black female lead. This novel is definitely a must read!
2. Blonde Roots (2009)
Have you read a novel about white slavery? I mean a novel about a dystopian world in which white people are enslaved by black people? Well, Evaristo cleverly insinuates such an "audacious" scenario in her novel Blonde Roots.
Blak Aphrikans from the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa enslave whytes from the 'grey continent'. The protagonist, a blonde girl, called Doris Scagglethorpe is later given the slave name Omorenomwara: "It's easy. Break it down into six syllables, O-MO-RE-NOM-WA-RA. Try harder, dear." This scene is reminiscent of Alex Haley's Roots in which Kunta Kinte is forced to take on his slave name, Toby - except, unlike Kunta, Doris is not flogged in this scene. This twist of names of people, geographical places and maps makes apparent the use of satire and humour at the heart of the novel's plot and story-telling strategies. The anachronisms in the story make it a very interesting read for contemporary readers.
3. Mr. Loverman (2013)
Mr. Loverman (2013) caused me to laugh more than any other of Evaristo's novels. But it also caused me to reflect a lot on what it means to swim against the tide of convention. I mean, what are the odds that a 70+ year-old man from the Caribbean island of Antigua, married with two grown children and grandchildren who has been covering a decade-long secret finally 'comes out' of the closet at the tender age of 74? Barrington Jedidah Walker is a loving, witty, conservative man who has been living a double life, since his youth.
Barry (as he is fondly called in the novel) is in love with his best friend, Morris, and has been since they were both teenagers. But no one, not in Antigua and not the Caribbean community in London - where he later migrates - can know about this. Barry is a loving father, husband and friend, who struggles under the weight of society's homophobia throughout most the novel's plot. The plot of the novel unravels around his well-kept secret. Barry's story is told with humour, wit and experimentation with language - which Evaristo does so well. At the age of 70 Barry does not live up to the clichés of septuagenerian (senior) citizens. The story-telling strategies evoke empathy for the main protagonist. I will be teaching this novel in an undergraduate literature class for the first time this summer. I am looking forward to its reception.
4. Girl, Woman, Other (2019)
I recommended this novel in a previous blog post entitled "five must-read novels this summer." Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo's Booker prize winning novel and rightly so. Since its publication fans have been working hard at mapping relationships among the 12 characters in the story. Evaristo had to tweet about this (follow this thread for creative maps about the novel's character constellations - spoiler alert!). As the title of the novel gives away, there is a congruous melange of stories about accomplished women of different age-groups, different trades, religious affiliations, sexual orientations, etc. Evaristo again, manages to meticulously set up credible character constellations and characters and witty dialogues in verse. The rhythm and pace of the novel is certainly stream-lined by verse. Having grown up within the oral tradition, the striking similarity between verse and oral story-telling made this an enjoyable read for me.
To reiterate a point I made while discussing Mr. Loverman - septuagenarian characters do not have to be boring nor do they have to live up to certain societal cliches associated with senior citizens. They can too can live their best, vibrant lives and have captivating stories to tell. Girl, Woman, Other is worth having on your shelf!
Mariam (Wuppertal, Germany)