Millennials would hate Barrington Jedidiah Walker (Barry), and the Gen Z’s would call him a dinosaur like his grandson who banters with him. In Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Barry narrates what happens in his life from May 2010 to May 2011 while also recalling his life in Antigua, how he learned to live as a black immigrant in England, and how he is going to muster the courage to divorce his wife, and move in with Morris whom he has clandestinely loved for 64 years.
He is 74-years-old in 2010, but for him time has stopped ticking after the 70’s. He dresses like he has stepped out of the 50’s and looks ridiculously dapper. He is misogynistic, self-absorbed, hilarious and sometimes inappropriately funny. “Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium,” Barry proudly declares. It’s easy to understand why his wife Carmel chose him. But the mystery of how the kind, empathetic, perceptive Morris fell in love with Barry remains unresolved.
Barry is everything that the dwellers of 21st century despise. Through that lens, Barry becomes unlikable. Here is where Evaristo’s storytelling becomes even more powerful. She shows all the great and dark sides of Barry not because she wants to say that everybody is flawed and perfect at the same time, but she holds a mirror to the system that makes life difficult for everybody, that influences the process of making decisions, and that makes and breaks your image, that you meticulously sculpt, in the eyes of your partners, friends, children… All the while Barry could be thinking that he was in control of most parts of his life, but the system, which’s created to oppress the people of colour, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, was always at the wheel.
Named after Shabba Ranks’ addictive song Mr Loverman, Evaristo’s novel could be easily mistaken as a celebration of the life of a gay man who comes out of the closet at 74, and rides into the sunset with his childhood sweetheart, but through the second person narrative, where Evaristo’s words burn with grief, anger, and self-righteousness, the book also delivers a feminist sermon on what it means to be a black woman in England, the stigma around postpartum depression in the 60’s and 70’s, the pressure to play ‘gendered roles’, and the bouts of loneliness that the broken system impose on women.
If Barry’s chapters are full of colours, jokes, his narcissistic cartwheels, and sharp commentaries on racism, linguistic politics, and sexuality, if Barry’s chapters come across like a flowery filter on Instagram, Carmel’s chapters are sepia toned. A sharp contrast. Carmel talks about things which Barry refuses to share. It’s easy to love Barry — thanks to his large personality — but it’s not hard to understand Carmel. It’s not hard to empathise with her. Carmel could reach the point of making brave decisions at the end, but she wouldn’t understand what it was for Barry to live two lives for 50 years, and neither would Barry understand how Carmel feels about being a cover for her husband for half a century. As much as they think that they made each other’s life miserable, it’s not difficult to see what actually made everything unnecessarily complex and painful — colonization, racism, slavery, homophobia, misogyny…
If Barry is still living, he would be 85. And by now, he should have become politically correct, and more informed about systemic oppression. In 2010, he said…
‘Morris, I am an individual, specific, not generic. I am no more a pooftah than I am a homo, buller or anti-man.’ I start to quietly hum ‘I am What I am’. ‘You homosexual, Barry,’ he says, going po-faced on me. ‘We established that fact a long time ago.’ ‘Morris, dear. I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’ I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it…
…Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don’t like to buck the so-called ‘system’, like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it.
Among all sorts of growth that Barry experiences between May 2010 and May 2011, standing up for what he is, and what he believes in, must be the most meaningful. The cost — of having been forced to love a man in secret, breaking his wife’s heart, worrying if his grandson would throw one nasty glance at a white person inadvertently, and get some bullets pumped into his temple for that, being loathed by his own daughter — should be borne by the system.
He could write many letters apologising to Carmel, but he must ask himself if he would receive an apology from everybody who wronged his ancestors, who made his life harder than what it should have been. So, he should see some labels here. He is a black, gay man. He is an immigrant. He could be richer than many of his white neighbours, but he will forever be seen as a black immigrant. And for that, he can’t be oblivious to the existence of the box and labels. He should recognise them. He should take sides. He should fight the fight because it’s just not about Barry anymore. It’s about reorienting the whole world. It’s about keeping, and leaving it safe and inclusive. Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 can share some tips.
Somewhere in the last chapter of Mr Loverman, Morris says, “..let we enjoy the vibes, man, enjoy the vibes.” It’s strange that he almost sounds like Barry here, but that’s the whole mood of the book. The battle is going to go on for some time, and while that goes, you might as well listen to some good music — Like Shirley Bassey’s The Girl from Tiger Bay — and no, you wouldn’t be judged for living your life.
There’s a crack in every pavement
Underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing
As history repeats
Yes many times I’ve wondered
Why a part of me remains
In a place so full of beauty
That somehow never changed
I bought a ticket of a lifetime
There’s no denying who I am
Forever young, I will stay
The girl from Tiger Bay
Time has me believing
That there’s nothing left to prove
I feel the love within me
And love can’t be removed
All the memories and the scars
They dance away into the stars