Essentially, it is a story about slavery in a world where Africa is the dominant culture whose wealth is based on the labours of European slaves (this is presented as satire but there really were raids by North Africans to capture Europeans from European coastal regions including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and even Iceland). The protagonist is a whyte woman slave who seeks to escape cruel bondage.
In books in which a fundamentally different world to our own is to be described, such as in most science fiction, the author is obliged to do what is called 'world building'. This means that time and writing must be spent describing the world. This can get in the way of developing the characters or progressing the narrative. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, builds the world of Gilead by drip-feeding us with information do that we are not faced with too much too soon. I felt that in this book, there was more world-building than there needed to be and that this was at the expense of developing the characters. The author had a lot of fun depicting the whyte europanes as cabbage-eating peasants ("We were taught how to cook: cabbage soup, cabbage pie, fried cabbage, pickled cabbage, skillet cabbage, scalloped cabbage, cabbage and turnip bake, cabbage and potato casserole, cabbage and spinach cake"; 1.2) living in a northern serfdom and emphasising their backwardness compared to the cultural and technological superiority of the Aphrikans. She had a lot of fun describing the Aphrikan capital of Londolo and all its constituent parts: Kanada Wadi, Dartfor City, "the arsenal town of Wool Wi Che, famous for manufacturing the finwest spears, shields, crossbows, poison darts, muskets and cannons in the world." However, I found the humour rather heavy handed, perhaps because the same joke was repeated again and again.
The characters, as befits a satire rather than a novel, were fundamentally stereotypes. The vast majority of the blak characters were evil: as slave owners and the wives and sons and daughters of slave owners they were viciously selfish, greedy and lustful and violent, and unredeemed by any suggestion of good. By contrast, most of the whyte characters were slaves and the salt of the earth.
The narrator of sections one and three, the protagonist Doris Scagglethorpe, was from peasant stock who had been enslaved. The descriptions of the slave voyage was terrible, the conditions in which she lived were awful, she has been raped and abused ... and yet she didn't seem angry or bitter. Early in the book she complains that her Mistress insists she wears her hair in the 'Ambossan' fashion: "My long blonde hair was threaded through with wire and put into plaited hoops all over my head. I wanted to protest that we whytes just didn't have the bone structure to carry it off." (1.1) Bone structure? This woman who has been abducted and enslaved and raped and abused worries about bone structure. She sounds more like a sulky teenager than an angry woman. Much of the book is energised by outrage but then you find moments of bathos, such as when the rag dolls are modelled after Aphrikan ideals of beauty which "was so bad for our self-esteem" (1.1) When reading a novel one has to suspend one's disbelief and these were moments when, for me, that suspension was made difficult.
I suppose that my fundamental problem was that this is a novel about slavery. Slavery is like the Jewish holocaust of the Second World War. They are huge topics. Unbelievably horrible things happened to people; the people doing these things were unbelievably evil. Except that they were normal people, people who, within the context of their societies, were respectable. To tackle that subject in a novel is extraordinarily difficult. A traditional, character driven novel would explore these issues in depth. There would be room for moral ambiguity (because humans are defined by moral ambiguity). Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which not explicitly about slavery, was an attempt to do this. (There is one moment when she appears to quote from Heart of Darkness: "What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror ..." (2.4; as a further clue to the identification, the chapter is entitled Heart of Greyness).
Blonde Roots is not a traditional character driven novel. It seeks to mine humour from slavery. That is a hard challenge and risks trivialising the horror. So Blonde Roots tries to remind you of all the awful things that happened during slavery. My problem was that because I found the characters stereotypical and because the protagonist was upset at the trivialities leaving little room for her to be outraged, I did not invest in the characters and so, ultimately, I did not care about their terrible experiences as profoundly as I should have done.
There were moments when I worried about the editing:
- "Our shack was constructed out of corrugated iron which was boiling in summer nights." (1.1): It must have been hot if the iron boiled!
- "When I asked for chilli pepper to spice it all up, my gracious host retorted that his palette could no longer take it." (2.5); palette should be palate.
There are some wonderful moments:
- "Dreams and disappointment were inseparable bedfellows." (1.1)
- "Such was the demand for sugar, the price of a sweet tooth was a toothless smile. Such was the demand for coffee, the price of caffeine was addiction, heart palpitations, osteoporosis and general irritability. The price of rum was chronic liver disease, alcoholism and permanent memory loss. The cost of tobacco was cancer, stained teeth and emphysema." (1.1)
- "In this life there were 'fairy-tale castles' and 'peasant shit-houses', and wasn't it a pity not to have a choice." (1.2)
- "I could see he needed a drink now because he kept twitching ... as if flies were landing on different parts of his anatomy." (1.4)
- "Their eyes were flint in the act of ignition." (1.6)
- "The humid air draped itself languorously over the surface of my lungs so that I could barely breathe." (3.4)
- "Real men were so damned sexy women got wet just looking at dat fine-lookin hunk-a-beef ova dere. Women cried, fought, poisoned, even killed over them, but when their real men let them down, they complained about having to put up with dat bastard filandara and dere iz no good man in-a dis place. But the good men - not tall enough, broad enough, well-endowed, sexy, handome, confident, cocky, muscular or sweet-talking enough - weren't real men so they didn't count." (3.6)
- "I had put my childhood in its rightful place, as history to be revisited but not relived." (3.7)
If you want a book to chronicle the effect of colonialism on African society then read the trilogy of novels starting with Things Fall Apart and continuing with No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe. Each one is a great book. If you want a book in which white and black swap places read Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (but don't watch the TV version which castrated itself by changing the ending). Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is another book about slavery. Sins of the Fathers by James Pope-Hennessey is a slightly old-fashioned history of the slave trade.
July 2020; 261 pages