A Five-Star Flashback from 2013 – #DiverseDecember

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Although I hope to read a book or two for #DiverseDecember hosted by Naomi at The Writes of Womxn, I thought I’d pop back to ‘My Book of Year’ from 2013 – which was the simply wonderful Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo. This novel made me laugh out loud, it also tugged my heartstrings and made me cry, with its depiction of a West Indian family in Hackney. I’ve been recommending it ever since. A slightly edited version of my original review appears below, I hope you might like to read this book too and enjoy it as much as I did. It’s been republished in paperback with a bright new cover since Evaristo’s Booker win.

“If a loving yuh looking for yuh buck upon the right one”*

UK Hardback cover

This novel has gone straight into my shortlist of books of the year – I loved every single page.  It is both hilariously funny yet compassionate and bittersweet, and eminently quotable.

Meet sharp-suited seventy-four year old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s and has lived in Hackney ever since, with his wife Carmel and daughters.

…Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on Barry, bring it on.

Barry is a self-made man of property and an auto-didact with a rather Brandian (Russell that is) love of language and Shakespeare. He missed out on a scholarship from Antigua to a British university, and went to work at Ford motors, Dagenham. He has taken evening classes ‘since 1971 to make up for it‘.  He doesn’t like being treated as uneducated…

Oh, boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the ins and outs of the Queen’s English. Like I wasn’t educated at Antigua Grammar School, best one in the country. Like all my teachers didn’t come from te colonial mother ship. Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there, I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, poss in the pot of cirrect syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?

We’re getting a good picture of Barry, but, he has a huge secret. His childhood friend, Morris, has been his lover for decades. Unable to come out in Antigua or England during those decades when it was illegal, he and Morris had felt compelled to marry and have families, yet still managed to carry on their relationship on the side. But now, in the twenty-first century, Carmel, who has long suspected that he’s a philandering womaniser is at her wits end, and Morris, now a widower, is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing.

Barry doesn’t know what to do, and worries about Carmel.

She used to tell me I was the funniest man alive.
Now her heart is so cold you can snap off a frozen shard and cut a diamond with it.
When did I last make that woman laugh? What decade was that exactly? What century? What millennium?

His relationship with his older daughter Donna is rocky too.

Donna is a lazy cow. All of her life she’s been eating her mother’s meals but she never reciprocates. Eats Chinese and McCrap. My daughter is most definitely a second-generation bra-burner.

If Donna takes after her mother, things are different with his ten years younger daughter Maxine, who works in fashion.

…Maxine and her mother never really gelled. I was the buffer between them. Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.

In between Barry telling us of the quandaries his life has landed him in, and speculating about how he might wriggle out of them without causing world war three, we hear Carmel’s side of the story starting back in 1960 when she became Mrs Barrington Walker. Carmel is young, inexperienced. and loves Barry for his good behaviour…

one thing is obvious: Barry, a real gentleman, unlike some of the boys round these parts, who can’t keep their things in their pants and their hands away from girl’s privates

Little does she know. I crossed my fingers, hoping that the author could manage to sort out this dysfunctional family by the end of the novel.

Carmel’s story is told in a different style to Barry’s wise-cracking.  More stream of consciousness – following her thoughts as they come into her head, single sentence paragraphs with little punctuation. The author also distinguishes between Barry and Carmel’s chapters in their headings. All of Barry’s are ‘The art of …’,  marriage, being normal, Sunday lunch. Carmel’s are all ‘Song of …’, sweetness, despair, prayer.

Evaristo has devised a memorable family in the Walkers. We can separately sympathise with all of their plights, but in Mr Barrington Jedidiah Walker she has created a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for.

Contemporary novels about older people are rare, (Anita Brookner, Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and last year’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce excepted in my reading). This is the first that I have read about the Afro-Caribbean community, and the first that addresses these issues for older people, it also explodes many misguided cultural clichés.

I was lucky to hear Bernardine read extracts from her book at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and I had marked it as one to look out for. Now I’ve read Mr Loverman, it will definitely feature in my list of books of the year. I loved it, and I hope if you read it you’ll love it too. (10/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Buy at Blackwell’s in pbk via my affiliate link.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, pub Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2013, trade paperback 320 pages.

* The quotation at the top is from ‘Mr Loverman’ by Shabba Ranks – a song Morris and Barry like, despite its lyrics!

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