Bernardine Evaristo is an audacious writer: whether it’s mining her own family tree for material and weaving it into a verse novel or turning history upside down in a revisionist tale of ‘whytes’ enslaved by Africans, she’s not afraid to rip up the rule book in order to tell a story her own way. She’s also hilarious. Though she meets her difficult themes head on, you can always rely on some belly laughs along the way.
Mister Loverman shows Evaristo fearlessly entering delicate territory once again. Her narrator is Barry, a grandfather in his seventies, born in Antigua but adopted by Hackney. He is happiest when quoting a bit of Shakespeare, having a quiet drink away from the wife and—we soon discover—secretly sleeping with men. The love of his life is, and has always been, his best friend Morris, a steadfast affair which has been carried out in a state of complete secrecy for decades. In creating a protagonist who ticks so many minority boxes—a gay older man from the Caribbean community—Evaristo risks sinking her character under causes, but Barry is too buoyant a character for that. ‘I ain’t no homosexual,’, he insists, ‘I am a … Barrysexual!’. Apolitical, except when he is downright politically incorrect, Barry takes great pleasure in announcing that women are “afflicted with a natural defectiveness” since they “mentalate” twelve times a year.
Barry’s roguish charm wins the reader over, but these jokes of his point to evasions in his life which have had painful consequences for those around him. Evaristo gives over a number of powerful sections to the voice of Carmel, Barry’s wife, whose years of marriage to a husband who doesn’t love her have made her bitter and self-loathing. When Barry begins to rock the boat, the ripples spread out to each member of the family, each of whom is also in their way struggling to fulfil the role which race, age, gender and sexuality seem to dictate. While some of the problems which the book highlights touch particularly on the Caribbean community, we are left in no doubt that they extend beyond it. Evaristo lightly sketches in some of the conflicting currents of liberalism and bigotry which make up our times, reminding us not to congratulate ourselves too soon on a victory for tolerance. As the epigraph from James Baldwin advises, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’.
Nevertheless, this is a book which cannot fail to lift your mood. Funny, humane and brimming with affection for its characters and the scruffy Stoke Newington streets where they live, this is a novel with all the fizz and kick of a rum and coke before breakfast.