Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo

I picked up Blonde Roots because I couldn't resist the idea of reading a story where the roles of slave and master were reversed, with the African nations being dominant over the white Europeans. It just sounded so intriguing. And it is obvious before a single word has been written that almost everything in this world has been reversed, or changed, as there is a map of the world in the front of the book with the continents of Europe and Africa switched, and even the Equator moved, so that the weather conditions switch too. Evaristo also switched some of the names of places in the UK (although this now stands for The United Kingdom of Great Ambossa) to African sounding names such as Londolo, Mayfah, Edgewa and paddinto. Oh, and The Africans are called blaks and the Europeans Whytes.

So bearing all these changes in mind, onto the story. It's the story of Doris, a Whyte slave girl who at the start of the story is being helped to escape to try and return to her homeland to find her family. Predictably this doesn't go to plan and she is re-captured, punished and returned to her master, although she lives a much harsher life after her capture. Through her narrative we learn a lot about her previous life with her family as cabbage farmers in Europe, her fairly cushy slave role as a personal assistant (if any slave role can be called cushy), and the horrors of the passage on the ship to The UK, once she has been kidnapped. When she is sent to the plantations after her capture, she at first feels isolated, but is eventually accepted into the slave culture, and the details of this culture are minutely written about, although obviously with the usual reversals due to the nature of the story.

It wasn't just the lives of the slaves that were described in great detail, also the way the slave owning race, in this case the Blaks, justified their inhumane treatment of human beings was noted in great detail, and although reversed, I'm sure similar justifications were prevalent in the not too distant past, and do bring home how once power and superiority is achieved, it's perpetuated through totally made up 'facts' and 'science' :

"Needless to say, Craniofaecia Anthropometry proves that the negro is biologically superior to the other two types. Indeed, while the negro belongs to the genus known as 'mankind', the mongolo and caucosi belong to a broader definition of 'humankind', which ranges from the fully evolved species 'mankind' to the lesser evolved species classified as 'neo-primate'."

Using this as a basis, the passage goes on to expound the horribly familiar ideas that skull shape and formation shows a lack of mental development, pain is not felt in the same way, and compares them to animals rather than humans, finishing with the idea that by enslaving the Europeans they are in fact being saved and given a better life.

Unfortunately, although the detail and horror in this book are all too real, I did have a slight problem with it. There wasn't really much of an original story involved. I was gripped by it, and I enjoyed it. The author evokes the atmosphere and brutality of life as both a slave and a slave owner brilliantly, but this is nothing that hasn't been done before. The reversal from Europeans to Africans as slaves is a really clever idea, and it could so easily have been that way round, but I just wasn't sure what I felt about it. On one hand, I thought it could be a fantastic way of showing how power corrupts humanity, whatever colour or creed you are. I like to think this is what was being aimed at, but at times the role reversal and all the name changes and switches just felt too gimmicky, and seemed to overtake the story. And, at least for me, this is borne out by the fact that I finished this about a month ago, and I've had to rack my brains to remember the story, but I can remember all the details about the reversing of circumstances easily.

All in all, not as good as it could have been in my opinion, but still a good insight into slavery and the effect it had on both the slaves and slave owners, so still worth a read. And the idea itself was an intriguing one, even if it overtook the story a bit.

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