by Bernardine Evaristo

Riverhead Press


268pp/$24.95/January 2009

Blonde Roots
Cover by Evan Gaffney

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots is an interesting thought Gedankenexperiment of an alternate history. Similar in some ways to Steven Barnes's Lion's Blood, Evaristo postulates a world in which North America is populated by Africans and the Europeans are brought over as slaves.  While Evaristo uses this set up to examine issues of race, culture, and perception, her overall concept does not quite work due to some basic decisions she has made.

The book tracks the story of Omorenomwara, a blonde slave born Doris Scagglethorpe in England.  As the novel opens she is given the opportunity to escape from her master, Kaga Konata Katamba I. Evaristo quickly, however turns Omorenomwara's attention from her current adventure to her past, detailing her life with her family, her capture, and then her life as a slave under two different masters.  Evaristo then changes to the point of view of Kaga Konata Katamba I, who views her escape as a personal affront. The second section of the novel allows him to look back at his life and career as he built himself up from nothing to his current position of power.  The flashback quality of these two sections, which form the majority of the novel have a tendency to weaken the book from a narrative standpoint.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Blonde Roots has less to do with Omorenomwara's life story or her relationship with her master and other slaves, but rather the comments and arguments put forth by Kaga Konata Katamba I in his writing to support slavery and refute the works of the abolitionists who live in his world as well.  Many of the arguments are clearly based on the arguments slavers in our own world made against Africans in the nineteenth century, although they are reversed.  Similarly, the description of beauty is based on African physicality, so Evaristo describes Omorenomwara, who seems to be a perfectly attractive Caucasian, in negative terms as her appearance would not match this society's norms.  While thought-provoking, the manner in which Evaristo presents these changes in view and ideology are done in an unsubtle manner which also weakens the argument.

The final portion of the novel does look at slavery as it is actually happening.  Rather than looking at the house slave role Omorenomwara has spent her life filling, Evaristo focuses her attention on the role of the field slaves as they deal with the master's crops and his son.  While the first two parts of the book are related at a distance by the flashback narrative, this section is told in the present tense, making it more real to both the characters and the readers.  This also adds a tension to the novel which was lacking for the first two thirds as suddenly Omorenomwara's life actually seems threatened for the first time.

Evaristo does raise intriguing points in Blonde Roots, but her use of flashbacks for much of the novel means that the reader never becomes invested in the characters.  By the time this decision has been corrected in the final section of the novel, it is too late.  The reader's reaction and relationship with Omorenomwara, Kaga Konata Katamba I, and others has already been set.  Although Evaristo has an interesting idea, her lack of attention to worldbuilding, as she simply reverses many things while keeping intact the cultures of our own world, leave the reader unable to suspend disbelief to fully appreciate the novel.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

Return to

Thanks to
SF Site
for webspace.