Saturday, February 07, 2009

West is east in this history reimagined

Rewriting history in fiction has been a favorite pastime of countless authors. There have been several outings by authors in which the ascendancy of Hitler or a nuclear conflict between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union have provided rich pickings. Bernardine Evaristo's sparkling new novel undertakes this project on a decidedly epic scale.

In the beginning, Blonde Roots is just another story of a girl abducted from the forest near her house and brought to the New World to work as a slave. All the usual accoutrements of the slave trade are present here, including rapacious masters, scheming mistresses and the mind-numbing pathos of the slaves' deprivation. Doris, the slave girl brought into this shocking world, is just another cog in the wheel that drives the New World's prosperity.

Except that Doris is white (or whyte, as Evaristo calls the race in a slice of pop revisionism), and her tormentors are blacks from "Aphrika." Off the coast of Aphrika sits the island of the United Kingdom of Ambossa. There is also a map at the book's beginning, in which the outlines of the world are jumbled to build an elaborate fiction in which migration of this sort — in the direction opposite to what history has laid out — could have happened.

The real triumph of Evaristo's craft is her reimagining of the conventionalities of the slave trade — with the attendant stereotypes of race. Doris, who works at the house of the local chief, Bwana, dislikes her pale skin and blond curls, and envies the rich "choco-colored" beauty of her mistress. This is taken to a more serious level when Bwana tries to justify the slave trade under the guise of the racial superiority of blacks.

Owing to the poetically surreal quality of its prose, Evaristo's deeply political writing is never far from endearing. Blonde Roots jolts the reader into looking at, and in turn learning from, history with new eyes.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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