A pleasingly subversive, well-crafted novel of slavery and deliverance that turns conventions—and the world—upside down.
Evaristo (The Emperor’s Babe, 2002) poses a provocative question: What if African slavers one day showed up on the Cabbage Coast and hauled off the inhabitants to work on plantations on some distant continent? That’s how the heroine, an Englishwoman named Doris, came to be the chattel of Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (referred to as Bwana), who “made his fortune in the import-export game, the notorious transatlantic slave run, before settling down to life in polite society as an absentee sugar baron, part-time husband, freelance father, retired decent human being and, it goes without saying, sacked soul.” Bwana has his Simon Legree–esque moments, but then so do all the slaveowners. There are Uncle Toms and Mammies among the pale-complexioned transplants from what the Africans call the Gray Continent (because, obviously, the skies are so gray there), but Doris mostly minds her own business and pines for the fjords until she’s swept up in rather elaborate events that take her on the runaway path to freedom—or so she hopes. Along the way she encounters long-lost relatives (“Mi cyant beleeve it. Me reelee cyant beleeve it,” one exclaims upon seeing her). Evaristo, the English-born child of a Nigerian father, has obvious great fun toying with some of the saintly slave and dastardly master conventions of the slave-narrative genre, and if her story has some of the dire possibilities of P.D. James’s near-futurist Children of Men, she favors ironic laughter to gloom—though there is gloom too (“I looked around and saw my future: haggard, hunchbacked women whose arms were streaked with the darkened, congealed skin of old burns”). Watch for the smart plays on real-world geography and history; the where-are-they-now notes at the end of the book are not to be missed either.
A light entertainment on the surface, but with hidden depths; nicely written.