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3.8 out of 5 stars22
3.8 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 9 February 2010
In Blonde Roots we are introduced to an alternative reality, where black Africans from the kingdom of Ambossa have colonised the new world and shipped over enslaved 'backwards' white Europeans. It's a good idea, and Evaristo makes it work well. Rather than just reversing the skin colours as some writers have done when embarking on similiar ventures, she also shows how the traditions of African society are perceived as the 'developed' and more sophisticated way of life, whilst the European customs and habits are seen as laughable and barbaric. Evaristo does this very effectively and her upside down world is entirely plausible.

There are great touches throughout, such as the secret Christian communion slipped into the lively voodoo ceremony held in the slaves' quarter, or the horror of the slave trader on arriving in Europe and seeing the barbaric natives with their hilarious clothing, primitive square houses, and monotonous language 'more like the mooing of cattle'. These factors make this is much more interesting and thought provoking book than a simple colour change could.

As well as the brilliance of the imaginative aspects, it is also a powerful and often graphically horrible account of the brutality of humans against humans. Whilst this story is fictional, I have no doubt that many of the events in this story really did happen during the real slave trade. The account of the awfulness of conditions on the slave ship is particularly vivid and, I suspect, more true to reality than many would want to believe. Likewise the barmy justifications of the 'civilised' people for their enslavement of the 'barbarians' are I'm sure an echo of the same excuses used by white people in the days of slavery.

It's a highly readable and gripping story, with a good plot and a particularly well paced, climactic ending. Even though there are a couple of coincidences, Evaristo manages to keep it plausible. My main criticism would be the rearranging of geography, which seemed rather strange and unneccessary, not to mention confusing. I didn't see why Europe had to be moved south of the equator, with the UK shifted onto the equator and changed to an African nation, but England transplanted to roughly the location of Belgium. The story would have worked just as well if everything had been retained where it is. I did like Evaristo's alternative London with it's Africanised place names and the underground railway being quite literally that - a slave escape route through the defunct tube network - but even so it would have worked just as well being located somewhere on the African continent.

But that aside, it's a clever and thought provoking book that has certainly made me more aware of the horrors of the real slave trade, as well as being a good read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 December 2009
The horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought so many Africans to the Western Hemisphere has been the subject of innumerable scholarly articles, books, and histories, as well as a great deal of fiction and film -- much of it quite compelling. But just when you think a subject is exhausted, along comes a new talent with a fresh perspective, and for better or for worse, that's exactly what this book is. The author has basically taken the races and flipped them, so that feudal Europeans are the ones captured by cruel "Aphrikan" slave traders and put to work at home and in the trans-Atlantic "West Japanese" sugar cane plantations. (It should be noted that in addition to remixing global geography, the story isn't set in any particular time period, as it mixes elements of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.)

The result is a relatively engaging satire that forces the reader to revisit the physical and psychic horrors of slavery through a different skin pigment. The first part of the story follows English farmgirl Doris, who is plucked from the woods by slavers, packed aboard a slave ship, and manages to rise to a relatively lofty position in the service of a wealthy family living in the Aphrikan capital of Londolo before plucking up the nerve to try and escape via an Underground Railroad (literally). Next is an overly long interlude comprised of the strident eugenics-based writings of her owner, who expounds on the various physical and mental flaws of the "whyte" race. This section is kind of one note struck over and over, and it's hard not to feel like it was more fun to write than to read. The story then returns to Doris, who ends up on a West Indian-type plantation with a cast of colorful characters, including some from her past.

Doris' story is pretty much what you'd expect from any slave adventure narrative, replete with highs and lows, intrigues, loves won and lost, a few surprises, and more than a few sorrows. But in the end the book isn't so much about slavery as it is about power and the disturbing idea that those with power will always seek to exert it over others, sometimes in the most extreme form. Indeed, history provides plenty of examples of mass white slavery, such as the British sending white criminals, debtors, political malcontents and others to work on colonial plantations (which is the hook for the classic pirate adventure Captain Blood) or the trade in European slaves by Arabs in the 16th-18th centuries. But it's one thing to read the history, and another to find it expressed by an artist through a human story. Although the story can be a bit uneven and predictable, there's plenty of wordplay, humor, and heart to make it worth checking out.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 25 April 2013
Nearer 3.5 stars really.

This was a little like the idea behind 'Noughts and Crosses': the subversion of history to make a point and shock.

Slavery happened, but to the white races. Great idea. Gets the attention. The plot involves Doris, stolen from her home in England and taken away to work as a slave for a master. We hear from her master as well as herself, and see the effects of slavery on those forced into it.

And there are good ideas here, I just didn't feel it always worked. The anachronisms just jarred and didn't make sense (why are corsets and britches alongside skateboards and Glamazons?! I didn't see the point). Especially as the epilogue describes what happens to the descendants of the characters in 'the twentieth century'.

Novels about slavery are powerful enough I'd just written well. YA read Chains is excellent, as is The Long Song and others. It felt as though once the shock factor melted away it was 'just' another slave story with nothing else new to add.

That's not to say it's without merit. I did enough listening to the audiobook of it, and think this helped with what other reviewers call annoying slave patois.

This is a good one to try if you're interested in original stories about slavery, but less if you're concerned with historical accuracy :)
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 December 2013
"Blonde Roots" by Bernadine Evaristo is a bitingly satirical novel in which world geography is slightly different and the history of the transatlantic slave trade took an opposite track, with "Afrikans" enslaving europeans and shipping them over the Atlantic to "Amarika" rather than the other way around.

It is narrated in the first person by Doris, a "whyte" slave girl in her thirties who longs to escape from her black masters and travel back home to England.

Darkly humorous, bitterly angry and very well written.

Evaristo is not the first writer to come up with this concept: Steven Barnes used the same basic idea of african slave owners shipping whites to the New World as slaves in his "Insh'Allah" series which consists of

1) "Lion's Blood (Insh'Allah)" (2002), and
2) "Zulu Heart"(2003).

If you liked those books by Steve Barnes you may well like this book, and vice versa.

One further observation, however, which is not meant as a criticism of either this book or those by Steve Barnes but does follow on from both, is that if you think it will help you appreciate how evil the slave trade was by imagining european whites on the receiving end, you do not have to invent alternate history worlds, or turn to fiction at all. The mirror is right there in real history.

Let me make crystal clear that I think slavery is wrong whoever is the victim and whoever is the perpetrator.

If you want to read about a mirror image of the brutal and dehumanising atrocities perpetrated against millions of africans by europeans, assisted by some of their fellow africans, through the Atlantic slave trade, you need look no further than the real history of the Barbary slave trade in which similar brutal and dehumanising atrocities were perpetrated against a million Europeans by residents of Africa.

I can recommend "White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves" by Giles Milton as an example of a history book which tells a true story all too similar to the one which "Blonde Roots" imagines as fiction.
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on 14 August 2008
I just finished this novel, which surprised me throughout with its brilliantly inventive satire and its vivid, fresh-off-the-page life. I can't think of another writer who mixes up history and the contemporary with such casual flair (if you haven't read Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe, where she does the same thing in verse, read it now.) Nor can I think of another book which has managed to make me think again about slavery, a topic, like the Jewish holocaust of WW2, which has been written about a lot, and thus become increasingly difficult to write about. But by a stunning reversal, Evaristo shows Africans enslaving 'whytes', and the European reader re-thinks the horrors, seeing them inflicted on Europeans, and seeing all the double-think of slavery applied by Africans to 'inferior' Europeans. But this makes the book sound too serious: in fact, it is consistently funny and bowls along, getting better and better, it seemed to me, as we move from England to Africa and end up in a richly sensual fictional version of the West Indies, where all Evaristo's pigeons come home to roost. A fabulous book.
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on 4 August 2008
This really is a wonderful book. If a better one is published this year, I'll be amazed. It's got everything: a story that builds and builds so that you can't wait to know what happens next; characters so vividly realised that you feel you know each of them personally and care desperately about what happens to them; an incredible amount of humour, even though its subject matter is far from trivial; and an awareness and understanding of how people behave that challenges and changes how you think. A book about slavery that is funny, lively, makes you cry and provides a completely different slant on what being "black" and "white" actually means - I never thought it could or would be written!
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on 16 October 2009
Brilliant idea which starts strongly. However it suffers from a lack of follow-through and seems to lose steam about a third of the way through the novel. Agree with previous reviewer who was confused with the analogous era the novel is supposed to be set in - is it present day or the 18th century?! This was frustrating and took attention away from the story (well, it took my attention away, perhaps others can over-look this more easily that I could!).
Further investigation shows the author is a poet. This explains a lot to me regarding her approach to the novel. Writing a novel and poetry are pretty different and this book could have done with some more narrative focus, development and discipline. Especially regarding the author's seeming disinterest half-way through and quick resolutions at the end (some of which seemed like lazy conveniences or after-thoughts). Surprisingly, at times the prose is actually quite leaden (there is more poetic prose in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel than in this). I can imagine that due to the topic Blonde Roots will be beyond-reproach. However it read to me like a first draft. This could be a brilliant idea and a brilliant novel. Instead it is a brilliant idea let down by a mediocre novel.
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VINE VOICEon 18 February 2010
Blonde Roots is a sharp satirical novel which revolves around the fascinating conceit of a world where Africans perpetrated the slave trade on Europeans rather than the other way around. The novel's central device is the reversal of traditional black/white roles and cliches and this dominates the first two parts of the narrative. A third part takes a more sentimental tone but the horrors of slavery are ever-present as the book moves towards a poignant and emotive conclusion.

For the most part this is a surprisingly old-fashioned satire in tradition of Swift and Johnson, so if you don't like the caricatures and implausibilities of that genre then this not the book for you. Blonde Roots is certainly not intended to be a realistic alternative history but if you're looking for a tongue-in-cheek dissection of concepts of identity, race and heritage then this definitely for you.

Sadly, Blonde Roots' commercial success has not matched its critical appeal. Despite rave reviews in the broadsheets it's difficult to find in bookshops less than a year after the publication of the paperback. This is a real shame as Blonde Roots is a bold and thought-provoking novel that has plenty of interesting ideas.
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on 2 September 2008
I am a big fan of Alex Haley's roots and therefore was curious to see how Evaristo would adapt it. This is a very well written book, with very clever observations and it manages to touch on very sensitive racial subject without ever souding racist. It is very funny but not for the faint hearted, as it depicts the horrors of slavery. Love it.
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