41. Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots.
Oh, this was awesome. :-D
For some reason, I had been expecting a straight-up specfic-nal alternate history. It's not, however: it's satire all the way. (Or put this way: it's as much a coherent alternate universe as Pratchett's Discworld is -- i.e., it makes no sense unless you're conversant in the dominant explanatory narratives of our
world, and it only makes "sense" as a commentary on those narratives.) The very first sentence of Blonde Roots
tipped me off to that -- here is a a world where Aphrikans are the imperial powers and whytes are slaves, but in which the beverage "rum and coke" -- Coca-Cola Corporation? really? -- exists. This can't
be an alternate history. Even so, it still took me a chapter or so to stop fighting the implausibilities of the world (implausibilities which had been never meant to be plausible!) and slip mental gears into satire-through-AU.
(I'd still advise to skip the map in the forepages, though. That thing, with its Italy on a Polar ocean, like to broke my brain. The only thing you need to know about the map is that the British nation-state has been separated from the ethnic identities of England, Scotland, and Wales. The island of Great Britain is now the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa and is positioned off the Aphrikan coast; the ethnic English, Scottish, and Welsh peoples are still a part of Europa. That's an impressively sweet little bit of footwork on Evaristo's part: she can keep the British Empire on the satirical hook for its colonial outrages by having it be part of the Aphrikan power structure, even while she uses our expectations of how English culture "ought" to be spoken of to show us how screwily African cultures are
spoken of. Too many "imagine the roles were reversed" narratives can devolve into allowing white people look away from things their cultures actually did, while helping them fantasize about having been themselves oppressed; Evaristo sidesteps that nicely here.)
(Also, using satire instead of a straight-up AU also effectively sidesteps the we-too-could-have-been-oppressed fantasy. When Doris Scagglethorpe (hee!) fantasizes about cabbages, cabbages, vermin in the thatch, and cabbages, it's so obviously tongue-in-cheek that a white reader can't descend into a help-I'm-being-oppressed fantasy. Others on this comm have long expressed fangirl-squee for Evaristo: on the basis of this single novel, I concur.)
There are essentially three interlinked satirical worlds here: a whyte house-slave in an imperial city (which, for whatever it's worth, could about as easily be set in the American South); the "I worked for everything I have; we're doing them a favor by enslaving them" worldview of the Aphrikan slaveowners; and a hybridized whyte/Aphrikan Caribbean slave culture. There's not a lot of plot here (of which I was glad -- the book was slowest where it got most plot-like). Instead, the book spends the bulk of its time exploring its satirical worlds, using both humor and horror to navigate them. (Purely technical aside: how does she do
that? How does she keep the humorous satirical stuff from cheapening the horror she wove in?)
Anyway, the book makes me wish I was far better-read, because I know I'm not nearly getting all the references, but what I do get makes me grin. Some of the satire is "just" obvious role-inversion -- pointing out how ridiculously ethnocentric our beauty standards are by reversing them -- but other things are jabs at genre conventions or current social trends. (Like that thing in nineteenth century novels where no matter where you went in the world, you run into the same six people! And "field wiggers," f'rex, is a clear jab at the "everything but the burden" white culture vultures -- if you want to be a 'wigger,' then be
a wigger and take the historical burden, too! Oh, wait -- you can't!
) And then there's the Gaiman-esque moments of making verbal imagery literal: I too remember being confused as a child about how few Underground Railroad books seemed to mention either the railroad part or the underground part.
Let me share one of my favorite moments: a passage mocking the faux-oppression of the privileged. Near the end of the book, Doris, who has gone through incredible physical and emotional pain -- violently separated from her family as a child; her own children sold away from her; beaten savagely; working long, brutal hours in the cane fields; and all throughout having had to pretend unfettered adoration the masters that she hates and despises -- is in the master's house and spies a locked cupboard with the key still in:
...I opened it, and found myself on a trip into Nonso's mind.
Self-help books were stacked on shelves, loads of them:
They F**k You Up--How to Survive Family LifeHidden away at the bottom, spines turned inward: Inheritance Tax for Dummies and Curing VD the Natural Way.
Healing Your Inner Child
How to Start a Conversation & Make Friends
Dealing with People You Can't Stand
How to Motivate Your Workforce
Not a single book had a creased spine.
I had to laugh.
I had to laugh, too.