Soul Tourists, by Bernardine Evaristo

Summertime odyssey through a poetic past
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The Independent Culture

Evaristo does place well and the past brilliantly, but her two protagonists and their dialogue are perhaps less successful. Stanley Williams, from a poor Caribbean immigrant background, has made good in the City and lives a "be-suited, be-cologned and be-haved" life; Jessie O'Donnell is a blowsy entertainer, artiste and even "some would say, a diva".

Under Jessie's influence, Stanley makes the "audacious, purifying,/ Elemental move" that Larkin in his poem "Poetry of Departures" famously could not. He drives off into the adventurous unknown with a carefree lover. The interaction between these two can seem a little forced: Jessie has a habit of calling Stanley "Mr Quantitative Analysis", "Stanley Stone Age", "Mr Oxford English Dictionary", and so on. Where The Emperor's Babe was written in a flexible narrative verse, Soul Tourists mixes blocks of prose with poems, lists and a stylised speech-bubble dialogue appropriate to sun-dazed tourists.

Where Jessie is impatient with historical set-pieces, Stanley enters them imaginatively and dives down into the past. The people he meets are ambiguous mixed-race figures from history and, through them, he traces the history of racial politics.

There is Pushkin, the Russian poet with a black streak in his ancestry, and Mary Seacole, a mixed-race Jamaican woman and pioneer of nursing during the Crimean War; at Versailles, he meets Louis-Marie, the little Mooress, illegitimate daughter of Queen Marie-Thérèse and her court favourite, an African dwarf. Louis-Marie was confined for most of her life as a nun: "Stanley's instinct was to pull this woman through the mirror, into the twentieth century. To dress her in slacks and a modest blouse, to initiate her into a world where she would have choices".

Despite my doubts about the main characters, the novel holds the reader's interest as a travel narrative. Some of the places make you wish you were there: "Night is now seeping into my pores. The lagoon and sky have turned the shade of violet last seen in Elizabeth Taylor's eyes in Cleopatra." Pace Auden ("Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns,/ Or Marie Stopes inside his mother's womb"), this odyssey is a book to pack for its gypsy spirit and its summer music.

Peter Forbes's The Gecko's Foot: bio-inspiration, engineered from nature' is published by Fourth Estate in August

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