Novelists and historians are often tempted to play the ‘what-if’ game, but few of these attempts result in anything as inspired as Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo’s newest novel and her first to be published in the U.S. Evaristo turns everything we thought we knew about slavery upside-down: in her book, Europeans are enslaved and Africans are the owners.
The picaresque story is told in spirited fashion by Doris Scagglethorpe, a young girl plucked from her family’s modest cabbage farm by the sea and sold into slavery. Renamed Omorenomwara, she barely survives the journey to the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa. She is sold to Chief Katamba, who brands her, but also educates her enough to keep her as a house slave. Doris longs for the gray skies of home and escapes, only to be recaptured and sent to a remote plantation where she works in the sugar cane fields. The vital culture of the field slaves, whose memories of a shared European homeland permeate their religious practices, chants and foods, engages her, but she still plots her escape. During her journey, Doris encounters a colorful group of characters, from abolitionist natives to stalwart Welsh field workers and the few free whites whose customs and slang imitate those of the dominant Africans.
Although the plot is brisk and the tone lively, the story is almost secondary to Evaristo’s imagined world. The Africans don’t only own the Europeans—geography and language are also shaped by their rule. Africa becomes Aphrika, Caucasians are “wiggers” and “Auld Lang Syne” is a field holler. Evaristo pokes fun at stereotypes; the dissolute young master, his accommodating mistress, and the trusted overseer may be familiar from a century of literature and decades of topical films, but here, the parallel disconcerts as much as it entertains. In addition, the book lacks any calendar dates—references to technology, fashion and transportation range freely over the centuries, which adds to the delicious sense of dislocation. Though the fast-paced narrative may seem light, Evaristo’s message goes deep in this delightful yet sobering novel.