Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo’s third novel is a vibrant collage. Stylistically playful, it throws a lot of ideas around. Places and faces, voices from the past and from the present. Her previous works, Lara and The Emperor’s Babe were novels in verse and her latest only occasionally dips into straightforward prose. When not broken into stanzas, Soul Tourists utilises interior voices spread out screenplay style on the page; lists and letters.
The story itself is a familiar one. Man and woman meet, feel the spark of attraction and head off on a reckless journey. This is hardly virgin territory but Evaristo’s strengths lie in her writing, in the shaping and pacing of her words. Each sentence holds a surprise. Colours and characters leap off the page.
Stanley Williams and Jessie O’Donnell meet in Mingles, a sweaty central London nightclub, and immediately click. Stanley is in banking and is still mourning his father, though the man was lost to him long ago, living as a wreck of his former self after the death of Stanley’s mother. Jessie is older than Stanley and more settled in herself, not shy of sharing her opinions; a one time singer and stand-up comedienne Jessie knows how to charm an audience. She is working behind the bar in Mingles when she first lays eyes on Stanley and he is only too happy to give in to her.
Jessie is full of talk about taking risks, taking chances, she says things like: “I’m on the long road to nowhere in this place. I want to be out there,” and soon a spontaneous, early-hours trip to the coast triggers the beginnings of a much more ambitious journey. At Jessie’s behest, Stanley leaves his job, embarking with her on a cross-continental drive in a clapped out Lada named Matilda. But though Soul Tourists escorts its readers through the campsites and backstreets of Europe and beyond, this is no tame traveller narrative in the mould of William Sutcliffe’s overrated and easy target-hitting Are You Experienced? This is a subtler, more offbeat study of identity and the connections that can form between people.
Evaristo adds layer after layer to her odd couple’s relationship, drawing out their voices and building on the up-and-down interplay between them. She enriches things further by blessing (or is that cursing?) Stanley with a particular gift. From East London to the Middle East, Stanley encounters people from other times: Mary Seacole, Shakespeare’s dark-skinned muse, the Black Nun of Moret; forgotten stories and historical footnotes, the mixed race heritage of a continent.
The loose lyrical style of her writing favours such interludes and prevents them from feeling heavy-handed or forced. These visitations are however often far too brief; these are fascinating stories and they are only touched upon. It is frustrating when Evaristo opens up theses narrative avenues rich with potential only to darts in another direction without fully exploring them. I would have liked to plunge further into this aspect of the novel.
As they move eastwards the relationship between Stanley and Jessie struggles and stumbles, and occasionally the story does too. But the language never lets you down; stylistically things remain fresh and original throughout. Soul Tourists works best as a string of startling moments and sensually arresting images; a sometimes mad, sometimes moving tale of two people travelling together yet on very different journeys.