In the Alternate History of "Blonde Roots," Africans Enslave Europeans

Illustration for article titled In the Alternate History of "Blonde Roots," Africans Enslave Europeans

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.

Blonde Roots [via Amazon (pre-orders) or (in stock)]



Huge fan of Alternative History here, why? Oh, I dunno, "what if there was a reality where I wasn't such a useless dork" comes to mind, but I digress constantly.

The synopsis of this novel seems intriguing but I must agree with Annalee that without even a cursory explanation of how Africans could have gotten the upper hand this all dissolves into farce.

I would urge interested readers to hunt down Robert Silverberg's beautifully written short story "Lion Time in Timbuctoo". It has a 20th Century CE dominated by Muslim Turks, Africans, Incas, Aztecs, and various Asian powers due to the Black Plague killing three-quarters of the European population rather than the 1/4 or 1/3 that died in reality.

Greater Timbuktoo during the 14th and 16th Centuries CE was an very sophisticated culture with some kickass metallurgy that attracted trade and savants from all over the nascent Islamic world while Europe was stuck in a plague-ridden feudal Hell. I mean c'mon, during the Dark Ages the best they came up with was the windmill and a really cool new horse collar. Okay, there was Francis Bacon, John Jay and a coupla other sharp cats. The Renaissance could have gone a completely different way by a few missed shipments or different whispers in various courtly ears.

Anyone interested in Silverberg's "Lion Time in Timbuctoo" can find it and other wonderful Alternative History stories in Martin Greenburg's The Way It Wasn't: Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternative History 1996, Citadel Twilight (screw Amazon, go to Out of print I'm sure, but really worth worth hunting down. It has several wonderful stories from such greats as Howard Waldrop's "Ike at the Mike", Fritz Leiber, Gregor Benford, Pamela Sargent, and Barry M. Malzberg. Also included is "The Winterberry" by Nicholas A. Dichardo about a reality where JFK survived that horrible day in Dallas. If you can read that without shedding a tear check yourself into the nearest mausoleum; 'cuz sibling, you have no soul. Just lay down and stop breathing.

By the bye, that Silverberg story is also available in Tor Books Beyond the Gates of the Worlds 1991.