“I, Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., have known you, Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, since we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked, mischief-makers waiting for we balls to drop.”
Safe to say I fell for Barry Walker, the Mr Loverman of Bernardine Evaristo’s riotously funny new novel, at first read.
76 years old and still up for it, Barry welcomes us in to his world at a point of crisis. His best friend Morris has given up drinking and his wife Carmel has the hump (i.e., she’s right pissed off). Mind you, Carmel always has the hump – she is convinced Barry is having it off with other women on his long nights out, and takes refuge with her ultra-religious uptight friends. Barry’s daughters are split on him, his eldest thinks he’s a rascal who breaks their mother’s heart, the youngest thinks he’s a rascal but Carmel don’t half bring it on herself.
So Barry is creeping in to his house in Stoke Newington after a night on the lash, and reviewing his fortunes. On one hand, he’s a self-made man, moved over to London from Antigua and raised a family and a business. On the other, he’s been having an affair with Morris since they were teenagers and keeping this secret from everyone in his life has led to a bitter hollow core at the centre.
Sounds very worthy, doesn’t it? Immigrant communities, homophobia, domestic unrest, Evangelical church goers, the gentrification of working class areas, generational differences, institutional racism…oh yes, there’s plenty of fibre in this book. But it’s handled with such gut-busting humour, there’s not a moment of lemon-sucking social justice preaching in it.
It helps that Barry – a rogue and a scoundrel though he be – is a cracking storyteller. Yes he’s a sexist bit of baggage, stymied by the kitchen when Carmel deserts him to return home to Antigua, and he even manages to get on the wrong side of the eternally peaceful Morris. But his protracted coming out process takes him to gay clubs in Soho (his daughter at the entrance to a club for the older gent: “This one’s called the Elephant’s Graveyard”) and reading the greats of queer lit. It also means dealing with a family rent all asunder by high drama and emotions, a smart arsed teen grandson who fancies himself the British Barack, and Carmel’s own demons – including her heart’s secret desires.
I laughed like a drain throughout.
“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 Queen’s English…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, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”
See, even when dealing with the big ol’ issues, Evaristo maintains a lively cheek. Taking a pop at small-minded bigots as well as acknowledging these character’s own faults, there’s a poetry to the down and dirty ways of Mr. Walker. Then there’s Carmel, who gets to tell her side of the story, in a flowy stream. Initially a bleaker counterbalance to Barry’s boldness, I warmed to her over the book.
A perfect, uplifting summer read. It pulls off the rarest feat of setting a steamy sex scene in a municipal council office, and could only really be criticised for having too happy an ending.