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A promising idea, gripping in parts, but badly thought out
on 14 June 2011
Blonde Roots is set in a parallel universe, where African, not European, cultures use shipping and weapons technology to create colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, and to kidnap millions of people and enslave them to work on sugar plantations. Residents of the Atlantic coastal fringes of Europa - the English, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Scandinavians - are particularly at risk of being stolen away from their families, regardless of rank or priviledge, and crammed into slave ships bound for the New World. The reader knows from the outset that this is not alternate history of our own universe, because the author has included a map showing Aphrika in the North, Europa in the South, and the Carribean islands unchanged, but renamed the West Japanese Islands.
The idea is interesting, and has been explored by other authors (such as Mallory Blackman, in whose Noughts and Crosses series it is taken for granted that the dominant culture is that of black people, and white people are treated as inferior). Unfortunately, in White Roots the execution of the idea is rather muddled and extremely illogical. For a start, why is there any need to have altered geography? The slave/sugar trade triangle could just have easily worked with geography unchanged, but Africa as the pivotal point of power. Linguistically, the novel is very puzzling; the slaves speak a kind of Patois, but the author seems to assume that in the White Roots universe there would be little difference from real life Caribbean Patois. We are repeatedly told that the slaves are from a mixture of European countries, and logically therefore the Patois would be an blend of Abrossan combined with elements of grammar and vocabulary from Germanic and Hispanic European languages, but there is no evidence of this at all, and we get a phonetic representation of what sounds to me like contemporary Jamaican patois. Even when two slaves discover that they are from the same country, they do not speak their native language together - even when this is English.
Most puzzling of all is the question of when the novel is supposed to be set. Various pointers (not least the "what happened next" postscript) suggest the early twentieth century at the latest; the slave ships appear to be sailing boats, and there is no electricity, although there is a disused Londolo Underground. The turns of phrase used by high status Aphrikans echo 18th or early 19th century real life discourse on slavery, and the Europeans clearly operate a system of workers on land-owners' estates. Yet characters use skateboards; they "airpunch"; and the young male Whyte slaves call themselves names such as "Bad Bwoy" or "Totallee Kross." Evaristo appears to be trying to cram current issues of identity and social exclusion among black youth in modern day Britain or America into a analysis of 18th/19th century attitudes to race and colonialism, and it simply doesn't work.
It's a pity, because there are sections of the novel which are much more thought-provoking, but these are lost in the overall lack of logic. Book Two, in which Chief Kaga Konata Katamba gives us his memoirs of his first trip to the Heart of Darkness which is the Cabbage Coast, and describes his first encounters with the backwards-seeming natives of England, is well done. It reminded me somewhat of Body Ritual Among the Nacirema in its ability to dismantle our own cultural assumptions with the eye of the outside, and I couldn't help feeling that had the novel as a whole been writted in this vein, it would have been much harder-hitting.
Overall, however, if you want to read about the real horrors of slavery from the point of view of a slave woman, I'm afraid you are much better off grabbing a copy of Andrea Levy's The Long Song.