Blonde Roots, By Bernadine Evaristo

White is the new black in this disorientating satire
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The Independent Culture

Classic "reversal" narratives include William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which civilised children play savage adults, Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, in which animal rules man, and Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle, in which a black character escapes into slavery. Conceptually, Blonde Roots surpasses all of the aforesaid provocation, creating a world in which Europeans are beasts of burden under the rule of African plantation overlords who wield untold power and wealth. They own language and geography too. They call Africa "Aphrika", whites "whytes" and the West Indies "the West Japanese Islands".

Doris Scagglethorpe, the book's heroic narrator, a young English slave girl, is Omorenomwara to her master, Kaga Konata Katamba. He brands her fair skin with his initials, "KKK". Inevitably, she makes a dash for freedom and there follows adventure, twist and counter-twist, resulting in capture and a second escape attempt. Along the way we encounter a gallery of colourful characters, from abolitionist natives to Doris's first love, Frank, to Lord Perceval Montague, who despite his noble blood is packed off to the dreaded New World with the lowly, pasty peasants he despises.

Though effectively manipulated, the plot is almost secondary to the very idea of Blonde Roots. The audacious inversion of the slave trade shakes one of the greatest foundations of modern history and topples a tower of deep-seated received wisdoms. On the one hand there is something rib-tickling about Aphrikan slave traders dubbing "Europa" the "Grey Continent" and cocking a snook at the Coal and Cabbage Coasts. On the other hand, an eerie pathos suffuses a scene in which "Auld Lang Syne" becomes a field holler chanted by the slaves to raise their spirits. The subversion reaches a sharp climax when Doris falls in with a group of "field wiggers" led by the formidable matriarch Ye Memé. Their broad Jamaican patois makes it clear that they stand as a wry metaphor for the pervasion of African-Caribbean mores in contemporary Britain.

A dazzling double irony arises: here are white Negroes who walk the walk, talk the talk and even cut the cane, as if they really were black. Heightening the boldly disorientating effect of this scenario is the absence of a single calendar reference. No event has a date, so an odd time out of time is created.

Beyond her pithy prose and engaging characters, Evaristo, as she did with The Emperor's Babe, tells a hugely imaginative tale that invites important debate, challenging fundamental perceptions of race, culture and history. Moreover she's done it just as Italian Vogue has gone black and Rome has cracked down hard on the city's gypsies and immigrants.

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