Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four and leads a double life. Born and bred in Antigua, he’s lived in Hackney since the sixties. A flamboyant, wise-cracking local character with a dapper taste in retro suits and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare, Barrington is a husband, father and grandfather – but he is also secretly homosexual, lovers with his great childhood friend, Morris.
His deeply religious and disappointed wife, Carmel, thinks he sleeps with other women. When their marriage goes into meltdown, Barrington wants to divorce Carmel and live with Morris, but after a lifetime of fear and deception, will he manage to break away?
This really took me a while to get into.
I’ve been trying to figure out what I rated this book. I thought I would give it 4 stars but I’m not too sure anymore. There were a number of things I struggled with in terms of the writing style, which let the book down for me. However, there was a lot I really liked.
Filled with themes of regret, guilt, identity, familial unconditional love and so much more, Bernardine Evaristo has written a novel that truly explores the older Caribbean community as they form their solid foundations in the foreign country of Britain. Told from the point of view of Barry – a 70-year-old – we watch him learn to embrace his sexuality
“I am an individual, specific, not generic.”
Barry is hilarious as a main character. He’s so often judging people in his head that you can’t help but laugh at him. He’s clearly still set in his ways and finds it difficult to understand the modern times. Whilst, I did find him funny. I struggled to get on board with a lot of his actions. However, it became very clear that Barry was hiding his sexuality because of the way society was when he was growing up in Antigua. He felt like he couldn’t truly be himself without the threat of death in the Caribbean. He even mentions many Reggae artists that sing about homophobia such as Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks. Barry explains how homophobia follows him to the UK as the attitude still lingers in the diaspora, thus, him and Morris, his childhood best friend, engage in a secret affair for years.
“Truth is, both of us was desperate to be anything other than what we was.”
At first, I felt conflicted because his wife, Carmel, was clearly in turmoil. His actions were also affecting his eldest daughter – but I’ll get into her character in a bit because she was one of my biggest issues with this book. Anyways, for the first couple of chapters I truly sympathised with Carmel. Her religious views made her stay with Barry despite knowing that he wasn’t truly faithful to her. Especially when we get into Carmel’s postnatal depression which Evaristo explored extremely well. Carmel talks about her anger towards herself but feels helpless and trapped in her emotions. Then Evaristo revealed something about Carmel that made me look at her sideways. Whilst I won’t spoil the plot, all I will say is that the hypocrisy is ASTOUNDING.
As for Donna…Barry and Carmel’s eldest daughter…I, personally, thought she was doing WAY too much throughout the entire novel. I hated every moment she entered the story. The rudeness she displayed towards her Dad became harder and harder to stomach. The lack of respect…the audacity…I just couldn’t get on board with any of it. I understood her hatred towards Barry but I just felt the line between daughter and father blurred way too much for me. Every time she spoke in this book, I cringed.
I understood her issues and I guess that’s what made the characters feel real. They were all clearly flawed. And it made the book feel more real. Even Barry, who I actually really liked, but his selfish and know-it-all ways began to irk me. It felt like Evaristo pumped this novel with fancy terms and knowledge that took it away from the plot in some places. I just didn’t feel it was necessary.
I enjoyed all the discussions about the Commonwealth and Britain. This isn’t a story about immigration but he alludes to his experience moving from Antigua. Barry describes what it was like as a black Caribbean man living in Britain. He talks about how he made his money and is relatively well-off. It was so lovely to read a novel where Black children are finding careers in art and fashion. And even, Daniel, Barry’s intelligent grandson, has dreams of going to Oxford and Harvard.
“But, pray tell, had not our labour drip-fed plantation profits to this country for hundreds of years before manumission? Had not thousands of our young men fought in two world wards for this land? Were not we immigrants paying our taxes and making our way as good citizens of this country?”
I really liked how it was his younger daughter that helped him embrace who he was. It was a beautiful sentiment and I loved their relationship. Barry clearly had a huge soft spot for his youngest and she definitely adored her father just as much. Reading how every time he looks at her, he sees his little girl was so lovely. Maxine was definitely my favourite character in the book. She was living her best life and reminded me of those rich aunties that go to the best parties and are always jetting off somewhere. But yet, she was still just as hardworking with dreams, she wanted to accomplish.
In telling a story about the older LGBTQ+ Caribbean community learning to embrace modern times knowing that it will bring liberation – Evaristo has written a fantastic novel. I liked the conversation Morris and Barry had with the younger LGBTQ+ community in the bar. It felt almost freeing for them to be themselves without worrying about judgment. You could tell that Barry, especially, had come an extremely long way from how he was at the start of the novel.
Finding the courage to be yourself isn’t easy. Especially if you’ve been hiding it for so long. You have to unlearn all the behaviours you’ve mastered in order to keep your secret. It can’t have been easy for Barry who’s been hiding his for 60+ years. It’s clear he was wrestling with himself on whether he should do right by his family or truly experience happiness in the last quarter of his life – not knowing how much longer he has left.
If anything this novel teaches you that your true self will eventually come out. You can’t run from who you are. From all the characters we learn about love, pain and that the process of change comes for you at any age.
It is one thing to embrace yourself.
But, accepting who you are is where true happiness lies.
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