Bernadine Evaristo's seventh novel, Mr Loverman, stars the 50-years-married Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq and his wife, Carmel. And his lover, Morris ....
Barry is what is commonly known as a bit of a character. Autodidact, property developer, natty dresser, rum drinker, suspected womaniser, the 74-year-old Antigua-born Hackney resident has been in love with his best friend since they were teenagers. This not being on, in 1960s Antigua, he married a local beauty and they moved to London, where Barry has raised a family and a business and, so far, managed to keep his real love a secret – he thinks. The blurb promises a "meltdown" and "big decisions"; but Barry's carefully constructed life is so beautifully drawn in the first few pages that it's hard to believe Evaristo will get him from here to there in 300 pages. Will Barrington really go to the gay bar?
The blurb also describes Barry as "cheeky" and "lovable", but he's not that. In fact, he's rather hard to like. He's an old-fashioned sexist who claims to love women (or "females"). He is self-taught and likes to go on about it. In place of awareness Barry has knowledge, and instead of empathy, quotes. "As Mr Socrates himself acknowledged …" he says, or "In the words of Mr James Baldwin, Esq …"
Now and again, though, he vocalises a canny insight. "My father had escaped the fields of his predecessors, and he wanted me getting letters after my name and a career worthy of my intelligence. Bettering ourselves was no joke when we was only a few generations away from the hold of the SS Business Enterprise out of Africa … Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don't like to buck the so-called 'system' like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it. Same goes with my marriage. I don't like being an outsider."
This would all be a bit one-dimensional if it weren't for the fact that Carmel also gets a voice of her own. While Barry's chapters are didactic and first person, all titled "The Art of …", his wife's are hesitant and poetic, with titles beginning "The Song of …" She addresses herself in the second person, as if she views her life as having happened to someone else. She too is smart, and her frustration at her empty marriage is heartbreaking. Without wishing to give away a satisfying twist, the chapter about Hackney Council, the eroticism of staplers and Reuben from Town Planning is wonderful.
As is a bitchy monologue from Barry about Carmel's front room – "Could write a cultural studies essay about that particular phenomenon. 'Coming from sparsely furnished homes, the women of the West Indies went goggle-eyed at the veritable cornucopia of colourful fripperies in the Land of Hope and Affordable Ornaments'." Mr Clever doesn't see the obvious: Carmel's chintz addiction is masking a deeper need.
It takes an extraordinary feat of plot engineering to go from this to a happy ending in which nobody has to be the bad guy, and for me it is a stretch too far. But this is not really a novel about gay love in the 21st century; it is a brilliant study of great characters in modern London. As such – as Mr Barrington Walker Esq might himself acknowledge – it is very clever indeed.