Doris is a young English peasant kidnapped by African slavers, who ship her across the Atlantic. So begins this action-packed, though uneven, tale of white slavery and black imperialism by Bernardine Evaristo.
Already a critical hit in the UK, Blonde Roots comes out stateside on January 22. While Blonde Roots tells a fast-paced story, often with bits of inspired satire, it suffers from several basic problems. Probably the most obvious is that Evaristo can't seem to decide if she's writing an alternate history or just a satire. Doing either is a tall order: There's a potential for oversimplified allegory in any story that offers such a basic historical switcheroo.
Creating an original, compelling tale (or a biting social commentary) requires more than simply asserting "this time the Africans are slavers!" We want some explanation about why history has reversed itself, which Evaristo never provides. Did Africans invent seagoing vessels before Europeans? Did they invent gunpowder? What gave them the advantage in the Atlantic trade zone during the Renaissance Era? This isn't a request that the book be more like pulpy alternative history - after all, Kim Stanley Robinson explains his alternate history in The Years of Rice and Salt with one, graceful note. In his world, the medieval plagues wiped out almost the entire European population, allowing Muslim kingdoms to colonize Europe, and installing Islam as the dominant culture of the West.
Without any kind of coherent world-building, Evaristo seems bent on creating a simplistic but confused satire of contemporary England. Doris is a house slave in "Londolo," a racially-inverted London where everyone drinks coffee at "Starbright," and the rich wear bones in their noses and listen to rave music. The few free whites pay exorbitant amounts to get their skins darkened, their noses broadened with surgery, and fashionable Afros glued to their shaved heads.
The satire here feels a little hackneyed, and relies for its effectiveness on our "shock" that black standards of beauty might be different from white. Perhaps this is a cultural difference between UK and US audiences, but I feel like this is a lesson we've all learned before, from far more persuasive thinkers.
Still, Evaristo's story of Doris' imprisonment and escape are heartwrenching and compelling. As Doris flees from her master in Londolo, with help from the underground railroad (here, abandoned tube tunnels), we learn her story in flashbacks. She's been a house slave, more psychologically abused than physically, and she's lost everything she loved: Her original family, the man she loved, and the children her master sold before she could even nurse them. Doris' wrath at her first mistress - who pretended to be her friend, but controlled her completely - is a well-observed tale of how slavery can warp consciousness no matter what racial group is in charge.
And though a lot of the satire feels forced, Evaristo reaches a frenzy of brilliance in a rather lengthy section of the book which she writes in the voice of Doris' master Bwana. It's his published account of how he became a powerful slave trader, and why it is merciful to enslave the mentally-defective white people whose narrow heads clearly show that their brains are inferior. Written in faux eighteenth-century prose, this section of the novel really soars and shows what Evaristo is capable of when she merges smart historical observation with her deliciously dark sense of humor.
You won't be able to put Blonde Roots down, because Doris' adventures are intense and the plot moves at such breakneck speed. But if you're looking for a thoughtful exploration of how master and slave are accidents of history, you won't find it here. Evaristo's mashed-up eighteenth/twenty-first century Londolo, and her unexplained historical twists, make this novel a failed exercise in world-building. But it's one I found intriguing despite its flaws.