Bernardine Evaristo made headlines in 2019 when her latest book Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize – which it shared with Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated The Testaments. But Evaristo has been a writer to watch for some time, and her earlier work is very much worth checking out.
Soul Tourists, published in 2005, tells the story of an epic road trip from England to Kuwait. The main characters are Stanley and Jessie, who meet in a club and fall in love. Stanley, clean-living, reliable and a little dull, is thrown off-course by the recent death of his father. Jessie, older, extravagantly extrovert and looking for a travelling companion on an overland journey to visit her estranged son in Australia, manages to convince Stanley the trip is what he needs. And off they set in Jessie’s old Lada.
It’s a layered read and a thoroughly hybrid text, interspersed with verse, imagined dialogue, letters and whatnot. There’s no doubt Evaristo is a consummately accomplished writer; sometimes you can feel the academic’s taste for research and clever allusions peeking around the corners.
The novel’s peregrinations coast along two main lanes: the tumultuous relationship between its main characters, and the historical task it appears to have set itself. The first is perhaps the less compelling, or at least the less unusual, although credit is due to Evaristo for developing characters who are both granted enough three dimensionality that you’re never entirely sure whether you like them or not. The second is what recommends the book and makes it special. Stanley is, as the novel describes it, ‘susceptible’ to visitations from ghosts, and as they travel from London, to the palace at Versailles, and on through Spain, Italy, and Turkey, he encounters the spectre of various Of Colour characters who have been written out of history. Some of it might be speculative – scholars are still disagreeing about the ‘Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, for instance – but the overall political project of the novel is convincing and beautifully executed. It rewrites Europe as a space constitutively configured by non-white presences, even as much of its history has been concerned to make these lives invisible, or as current-day discourse would model Of Colour peoples in Europe as ‘new arrivals’. The novel is a creative intervention in the histories and stories told about Europe and who ‘belongs’ in it; we could use more literature like it.