HAMISH HAMILTON £17.99 (272PP) £16.19 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

Young, gifted and whyte: life in Great Ambossa

History is subjective. With fact as its backbone, its relationship to fiction is that of the stern and virtuous great aunt to a muddy kid. Africans were enslaved by Europeans for 400 years. The British Empire was the granddaddy of economic and human exploitation during that time. It takes a particularly brazen kind of muddy kid to argue with this. The facts of the transatlantic slave trade are accepted, then either shrunk from or built upon, such as in Edward P Jones's surprising depiction of a black slave owner in The Known World.

In her new novel, Bernardine Evaristo, never one to shrink from an experiment, has taken her boldest step to date and turned the whole thing on its head. She imagines it was Africans who enslaved Europeans – namely the spirited daughter of a family of English cabbage serfs, Doris Scagglethorpe. The empire was not a tiny big-headed island near Calais, but a similar one called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa off the coast of "Aphrika". In Evaristo's muddy hands, history is Playdough.

The 11-year-old Doris is captured while playing hide-and-seek with her sisters. She's put in chains and finds herself in the hold of a slave ship, where she experiences the horrors of the Middle Passage, the darkness and disease, the rapes and suicides, the torturous punishments for weakness or revolt, and the feeling of lying next to a corpse for days. Her fate from there is a step up from the average "non-achieving, low-flying slave". She begins her new life as mistress and playmate to a spoilt Ambossan brat who teaches her to read and write, then is posted as PA, or "house wigger", to import-export boss "KKK", Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I, or Bwana, whose estate lies in "Londolo's" most affluent district of "Mayfar". Her hours are Monday to Sunday, 12 am to 11.55 pm, unpaid, with overtime when necessary.

Evaristo has said that she always wants to have it easy and write a straightforward prose novel but her intentions get thwarted en route. This time she has managed it, the novel-in-verse poet peeking through in beguiling description – a character with "the stoop of a thin tree blown forwards by a gale" - and sections, particularly of high drama or strong emotion, where the text reverts to the fleshy one-liners of her previous form.

A sizeable suspension of disbelief is required as fair, stringy-haired and thin-lipped Doris takes us in vivid detail through her people's inferiority issues about belonging to the alleged physically, intellectually and morally debased "whyte" race, but one of the best things about this book is its bittersweet, riotous humour. In the "Vanilla Suburbs" of Brixtane and To Ten Ha Ma, where a free whyte Diaspora has already emerged, natural blonde tresses are replaced by Aphrikan weave-ons, nose-flattening jobs are quite affordable, and tanning studios rife. There are civil-rights protesters and SUS laws, and the security guards are always white, not black. As she did in her smouldering verse novel of Roman London, The Emperor's Babe, Evaristo has brought the historical into the contemporary zeitgeist (of self-help books, middle-class neuroses, knife-carrying youth), creating her own skipping vernacular, and in the midst of all this jive making serious comments about the construction and irreversible effects of racism.

Running through these pages is not just a feisty, hyperactive imagination asking "what if?", but the unhealed African heart with the question, "how does it feel?" This is a powerful gesture of fearless thematic ownership by one of the UK's most unusual and challenging writers.



Diana Evans's novel '26A' is published by Vintage

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there