Bernardine Evaristo’s first prose novel reverses history and covers some ambitious ground.
In Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo revises history by reversing the slave trade: here, traders capture slaves in “Europa” to sell in “Aphrika.” At the beginning of the story, the narrator, an Englishwoman named Doris, is a “privileged” slave; she works as an administrative assistant for her African owner. Doris is, by her own description, “slick, sarcastic, sophisticated, opinionated, literate, numerate,” and she relays abuses familiar from actual history—overcrowded slave ships, whippings and hangings, backbreaking labor in cane fields. But Evaristo uses Doris’ world-wary perspective to comment on race relations today as well, giving the novel an ambiguous time setting, since there are no dates mentioned. “Whyte” women in the “Burbs” go tanning, get black kinky hair extensions, and undergo nose-flattening procedures to try to emulate the dominant race’s beauty ideals. They’re called “wiggers”; the boys wear baggy pants; and monotheism, monogamous relationships, and conservative European clothes are considered “barbaric.” Blonde Roots is Evaristo’s first novel in prose, and her background in verse shows through the book’s metaphors and imagery, like her description of bananas, “still on the stem, like bunches of upturned fingers.” The story centers on Doris’ attempt to escape into freedom, but exposition fills the book more than action. Though Doris’ commentary makes the narrative drag, the novel covers an ambitious amount of material. And while it teaches a common lesson—in paraphrase of Evaristo’s Nietzsche epigraph: history’s interpretations depend on who holds power—Blonde Roots serves as a provocative reminder