Sunday, 30 November 2008

History remade?

Like most of you (I suspect) I keep lists and lists of books I want to read. My list is not necessarily a list of books I want to buy...though I'll buy some of them...but mostly I borrow from the local library or from friends and then once I've read a book if it's something I really like I might buy a copy (either for me or to pass on elsewhere). In truth I have several lists – prose books (fiction and non), poetry books, music CDs to try/buy, films to catch up on (and boy, am I behind on that one!) and finally books/films/music I must get hold of for Small Girl at some point too.

For a while now I have had 'anything by Bernardine Evaristo' on my books lists because...well, firstly I read something interesting by her in the magazine 'Mslexia' a while ago (when I used to subscribe...I stopped this year after subscribing since issue one). Also, even further back in time, I read a great article by Evaristo in a newspaper criticising some of the main poetry publishers (for their failure to publish many non-white poets as it happens... but I'm quite happy for anyone to criticise poetry publishers about anything really...some of them...the Carcanets and Picadors...I can't say they rock my world very often). So, as she was on my list, at some point I tried our local library for Evaristo books but found nothing. They're normally pretty good but when I first tried (maybe a year ago) they didn't have her 'Soul Tourists' (2005), or her 'The Emperor's Babe' 2001, or her 'Lara' 1997 (due to be rereleased next year..by Bloodaxe). All of these works are verse-novels and so a little unusual I suppose... maybe too much so for Angus libraries (though I did just recheck...in the interests of research...and they do now have the new book 'Blonde Roots'...the one I will get round to talking about any time soon!). But as the municipal shelves at that point were bare I just got on with reading other books from my lists and waited, most likely, for a big bookshop trip or something (I am a long way from big bookshops here and whilst I do use Amazon it's not that often...especially since I learned more about how much they pay publishers...).

In the meantime however Evaristo was working on a new project (or more likely lots of new projects – she strikes me as a woman with huge energy!) and this year she published a new book 'Blonde Roots'(Hamish Hamilton). This is a prose novel (not verse) and it is about slavery...but with a difference. In this book the slaves are white and the masters black...it is history rewritten with 'Aphrikans' taking slaves from 'Europa', 'blak' people treating 'whytes' as goods to be traded and as inferior, inhuman and beneath consideration. When I first heard about this book I remember just thinking 'Wow! What a great idea!' I don't think I've ever heard of anybody coming up with this particular idea for a book before...have you? And yet it's one of those great, seems-obvious-when-you-think-about-it ideas. Why has nobody written this before? Imagine the film! Imagine how you could horrify white right-wing relatives by even THINKING about giving them this book for xmas ('white people not in control of the whole world– are you mad?' 'Not any more...')!

It sounded so interesting that I added 'Blonde Roots' to my books list...but this time with a few extra asterisks and underlines. A short while later I was doing some on-line shopping (at WH Smiths, as it happens, because they all do free p & p now that Amazon do it) and I thought...'do you know what...early xmas present to self...I can't wait any more...I'm just going to buy it'. I just couldn't wait to see what Evaristo had done with this biggest of huge ideas (I imagine the likes of PJ O'Rourke might call it a 'liberal wet dream'...remember him, by the way – 'Rolling Stone', 'Republican Party Reptile' and all that? I interviewed him once. He was dull).

So...back to the book...are you on the edge of your seats? Has Evaristo taken that great idea and written a great book? Is it life-changing, earthshattering, a total knockout?

Well, firstly I would say – buy it (or borrow it) and read it for yourself because it really is a very interesting and unusual book. I read it in a couple of days – mainly, I think, because it's engrossing, fast-moving and strangely easy to read (considering some of the gruesome details...this is the slave trade...nothing very pleasant happens...). In fact I read it so quickly that I may well go back and read it again some time soon. Evaristo writes as if her pen is on fire – the enthusiastic details of clothes and food and places and people shooting out, white-hot – so the prose fairly whooshes along, like flames through a dry forest, and you really do get carried along with it. I'm not going to retell the whole story for you or anything (I can't be doing with reviews like that...) but it is exciting - that much I will give away.

Another reason I read 'Blonde Roots' so avidly is that I found how it was written as unusual as what it was written about. When I first read an outline of the story I suppose I formed in my head an idea of what it might well be like (don't we all do that when we read a précis or a review of a book, especially a novel?). I had imagined something that felt like a historical novel, something a bit like the very good 'Voyageurs' by Margaret Elphinstone (that I read, and then reviewed here back on 18th October) - there would be archaic language, there would be period costumes, there would be suffering...all with that clever, multi-levelled twist that might well make some readers see slavery from another angle. I suppose I thought too that it would probably be a BBC series by the spring (reusing the costumes, barely letting the paint dry on the 'Little Dorrit' sets before they were recycled for the new season's set-piece) . But the biggest surprise, for this reader anyway, was that it is not really like a historical novel at all in some ways...it does not fit into any ready-made slot. And this makes sense when you think about it. Why should she write this story the way anybody expects? She is writing, in many ways, about the world turned upside down so why should her novel be script-ready for the BBC Dickens department after all (and let's not even mention that 'Devil's Whore' series that's on Channel 4 just now...have you ever seen anything more ridiculous? I fully expect to see Cromwell amusing himself with a copy of 'Penthouse' in the next episode...)? In 'Blonde Roots' Evaristo has even changed the sun's behaviour because on page 61 'the weak sun started its weary descent towards the east' (my favourite line in the book...so matter-of-fact, so matter-of-not-at-all-fact) so why should she do anything the way a silly old reader like me expects her to? I love it when writers work this way...take the ball, run with it, have no intention whatsoever of giving the thing back...

So whereas I was expecting to be unsettled, surprised, provoked by the racial aspects of the story (and that does happen...it's a provoking book throughout...not one lazy line) in actual fact this novel unsettled me in ways I couldn't quite put my finger on to begin with. There is the very strange feel she creates, for example, by having the story set in a kind of past-but-not-past. Yes, the 'whyte' slaves are transported, squashed in their own shit, in ships (not planes...there are no aeroplanes so the setting is definitely past-like) but the language is not anything you might recognise as olde worlde and that's...kind of odd (well, I found it odd anyway). The language is very varied (all kinds of interesting dialects and wordplay) but there is definitely a lot of our modern world language in the mix too. It comes out particularly in asides or afterthoughts from the main character ('whyte' Doris..or Omorenomwara to use her slave name) and often just when something really horrible is happening. I wondered a lot as I read this book why Evaristo had put some of this very modern language in...and I think there might be several reasons. Firstly I think it means the modern reader (whatever their colour or race) identifies with the slavery experience very directly...you can't push all the horror (and there is plenty of that..plenty of torture and cruelty) away with a 'yes, it must have been terrible' because the main character talks like you, your friends, the people you know now...at least some of the time. Also you don't quite know where you are as a reader...is it past, present, future...is it history, fantasy, science fiction? Then Evaristo throws humour in too...just when things are at their nastiest...it's really very different, very unexpected, simply not cricket, somehow. All this confusion helps the novel do its job very well – it helps turn the world upside down, inside out, back to front. It's symbolic, on many levels, I imagine, and it certainly makes the novel feel like nothing you've ever read before. Since I read it last week it has worked its way quite thoroughly into my thoughts and wonderings. Take last night - we've been recording and watching the very interesting Simon Schama history series 'The American Future' (much more worth your TV time than the silly old 'Devil's Whore'!) and last night we watched the programme that talked about slavery and black churches and the civil rights movement in the USA. So much of it made me think of 'Blonde Roots', of clever points that Evaristo makes in her slavery story, of how she shows brilliantly what you can do with history if you put your mind to it. I might come back to 'The American Future' in another post maybe...that bit about Fanny Lou Hamer singing on the bus...singing, singing...you know how I'm always going on about singing...

But in the meantime get yourselves a copy of 'Blonde Roots'...however you manage it...because it is ambitious and challenging and it will make you think hard about all sorts of things (about the differences between people, about how our world is and why, about how people have treated people and how they might treat each other in the future) but also I think it will make you think even more than you already do about what writers write (and why and how). 'Blonde Roots' has been received well in the UK so far (hey, it's in the Angus libraries...she's really arrived!) and it's published in the USA in early 2009 (where I imagine it will make a fairly huge splash of one kind or another). To find out how it gets on keep an eye on Evaristo's very interesting and lively blog. Whatever will she write next I wonder...and will 'Blonde Roots' win any prizes over the coming months and years? I think it might. I think it probably should.

25 comments:

Crafty Green Poet said...

Blonde Roots does sound good, I'll look out for it. Thanks for the recommendation.

I read Emperors Babe and loved its verve and inventiveness, though i was less than totally impressed by the poetry itself

Dominic Rivron said...

Sounds a really good book. I've put it on my "mental list" of things to read. Top at the moment, since I heard it discussed on the radio, is "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut.

BarbaraS said...

Great review, looking forward to reading it at Christmas, when I'm playing catch up with all the books I've got here on my TBR pile!

Rachel Fox said...

Morning people!
CGP - now I want to read 'The Emperor's Babe' more than ever...I do like a bit of verve!

And Dominic...well done at managing a mental list! I have to write mine down...sometimes I get to a 'big bookshop' and if I don't have the lists with me my mind just goes blank and I can't remember any of the books that I wanted to look for! When this happens I go to the CD department...

x

Rachel Fox said...

Barbara...I usually end up reading something really bizarre at xmas...something that does not at all go with the huge meals and the general decadence. Not quite sure how that happens...

Dave King said...

I had just decided that my wanted book list had become ridiculously long, and now you've talked me in to adding to it! Oh well, Christmas is coming! A great post, though.

Rachel Fox said...

Just managing the lists can be a fll-time job Dave!
x

Singing Bear said...

Thanks for the tip. I think I'll, search this one out.

The only similar books I can think of are those kind of 'what ifs?' like the one by Robert Harris where the Nazis actually succeeded in defeating Britain. But I guess that 'Blonde Roots' is a far deeper book (and better) book. I'm sure there must be a bunch of sci-fi books with a similar idea but this does sound pretty unique.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes...I nearly mentioned 'Fatherland' in the post, SB. I haven't read it but I did see the end of the film once and thought...'must watch that again or read the book'...
x

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe I'm just plain weird but I've never kept 'to buy' lists. When I discover a book I want I buy it. I have a bundle sitting on a shelf by my desk. I suppose part of that stems from the fact that I could always afford to buy what I wanted when I wanted to plus the fact that I'm a fussy reader so the list would never get very long. Music is another thing entirely since I want to listen to everything pretty much; I have to be persuaded to read a book. There are a few like Pink Floyd and Fish, just to stick to singers, where I'd buy whatever they released the first chance I go so any list would be very short and last no time at all.

I do have a wish list for the sake of my wife's relatives so they're not stuck to buy me something for Xmas but that's it and they never get the stuff I really want off it, they always go for the cool stuff ... well, as cool as my tastes run.

Rachel Fox said...

You could always afford to buy what you wanted when you wanted? Have you never been skint, Jim?

Rachel Fox said...

And you're no weirder than the rest of us Jim. May I refer you to page 32 of 'More about the...you-know-what'. (And if you've swapped it for a bag of gobstoppers...make sure you clean your teeth well and regularly).
x

Sorlil said...

To be honest it sounds like hard work - that it requires a lot of concentration rather than escapism reading, and after the week I've had I don't have the energy to even vaguely contemplate getting to grips with the kind of challenges you mention in the book! It does sound interesting though.
I've just ordered a wopping eight poetry books for my birthday, seven from amazon (sorry!), it's a bit obscene innit?!

Rachel Fox said...

I think you are, like, proper addicted, Sorlil...
Don't apologise about Amazon! I do still use them too sometimes. Those of us who live miles from big bookstores do end up using them...never mind everyone else...but after going crazy and buying nearly every xmas present from them a couple of years ago I have slowed down a bit. Will we just end up a country of giant warehouses with huge vans driving everything about if we all use them all the time? Probably.
x

hope said...

I looked up one of Hugh's books on Amazon the other night and made an interesting discovery: the u.k. version is MUCH more affordable!

I'm doing this off the top of my head but one of his older books "Tramontana" sold for about $18 US on Amazon u.k. but $51 on the US site! How much shipping do these folks need in my own country?

I've got to back up a few posts as you suggested a book for me in the "historical fiction" field that I'll have to look for. As always, enlightening post...said she who makes lists to keep from going insane.

swiss said...

i'm at the jim end of the spectrum on this one but more because i never got over my child'like want-must have loop of desire....

Rachel Fox said...

I'm more like that with cds than books, Swiss. Not very good at waiting to get a cd once I've heard something I really like the sound of.

And Hope - it's the other way round here of course...'American import' has always meant 'heaps more expensive' for us. Good luck with the lists and the not going insane...I've always been a lister, I find it comforting I think.
x

swiss said...

oh, it's not just books, it's everything. i'm on a purchase bar for the whole of december tho i've managed to make a mess of that already

Rachel Fox said...

Oh I see...
x

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for the parcel Rachel and the buy one get one free - so kind of you. Love the postcards too. As you say maybe we will meet one day. Regards

Singing Bear said...

Rachel - this is unrelated but I just want to say thanks for your comment at my blog today. Yes, there are times we all need some help. It's a good idea.

Rachel Fox said...

Weaver - glad it all arrived safely.

SB - I've been singing The Beatles' 'Help' to myself a lot lately (Small Girl likes it and heard it on the TV). I have a story about that song that I might get on here soon too. It's not a very exciting story...just a little tale of life and woe!
x

Rachel Fox said...

Plus SB - I put your new blog in my list but just went to look at it and it's not there...

Bernardine Evaristo said...

Thank you for this, Rachel. It's truly wonderful. I can't read the comment, though, as it's like eavesdropping on a conversation where people are talking about you!
Scary Mary! But I am very touched that you've gone to the trouble to talk about Blonde Roots at such length and so brilliantly. BIG THANKS from London Town!

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for dropping by Bernardine. Just one of many many reviews for this book I'm sure!