Reimagining the Women's Prize

Orange Prize 1996 Book Review – The Book of Colour

The Book of Colour

Publisher: Vintage

Cover Images: Alexandre-François Desportes & Phillipe Blackburn

Format: Paperback

Pages: 180

Rating: 3/5

Book Depository: Paperback

Content Warnings: Racism; violence; abuse; scenes of a sexual nature

Julia Blackburn writes a memoir on behalf of her father and grandfather, outlining their experiences in the Seychelles, Mauritius and England, where they have struggled to come to terms with their respective identities following abuse and flawed ideals that have passed through generations. Blackburn’s great grandfather was a white man who was heavily involved in religion and ‘missionary work’ and appeared to desire the eradication of “unnecessary fornication”. However, after having a wholly hypocritical affair with a Mauritian woman, Eliel is born. The people around Eliel constantly use devil imagery to describe black people and miscegenation, which causes him to question his own identity based on his skin colour.
When Eliel’s mother is accidentally cursed, following his father’s destructive actions, they move back to Mauritius where his mother promptly disappears (it’s suggested she is taken to hospital, but this is never confirmed). This leads her son to live with his uncle on his sugar plantation where black people regularly have racial slurs hurled at them, and are treated as servants or slaves, further forcing Eliel to believe he is somehow inferior.
Language more lyrical is rarely seen, and the descriptions of nature are beautiful and free flowing, causing the reader to pause and digest every word. This slowing of the pace allows for full comprehension of what is occurring within the story, and paired with the shocking content material feels like cold ocean waves washing over you with alarming regularity, preventing you from ever feeling comfortable. This reflects how Eliel, and later Thomas, must have felt being constantly showered with racism from the people who are supposed to love them unconditionally.
There is a constant battle between superstition and religion within the book, both of which use cautionary tales as a tool to force repression. Evalina Larose, who appears to be a part of the family, as either a servant or a relative – it is never revealed, uses folklore to create concoctions to help the mother, whereas Eliel’s father favours religious scripture, and when that doesn’t work, simply forces his wife away.
A series of vivid hallucinations offer a frenetic exploration of the past, emphasising the lasting damage of the racist views Eliel has internalised and passed on to his son. There is a quote later in the book, which was truly heartbreaking and made me stop reading for a moment – “he knows in this moment his childhood has come to an end”. This highlights that children do not naturally concern themselves with matters of race, it is adults that force their flawed views upon them, creating a toxic environment. In the brief time we see Julia herself in the memoir, she has already begun to internalise the hypocrisy surrounding racism that is endemic to her family. When discussing a man her grandfather informed her about who was buried up to his neck in the sand and forced to watch his allies being trampled by horses, she says “I wondered if the black men realised how frightening this all was”, which is hypocritical given the history of slavery and racial segregation in the world.
Having no solid role models in her life growing up, Julia is forced to seek solace elsewhere and take guidance where she can find it, or even make it up. The personification of the pig, and what could be argued to be auditory hallucinations emphasise her loneliness. She has witnessed the stifling influence of damaged masculinity and flawed ideals that have been forcefully passed from generation to generation. The perceived obligation her father has to his own father creates an oppressive environment that highlights the deeply unconventional childhood all three have possessed.
This book appears to be an attempt to break the cycle of toxic masculinity and racial prejudice – by telling the story, the perpetual cycle has been stopped in its tracks. Julia recognises the unhealthy nature of her own childhood and the horrific nature of her father’s and grandfather’s respective childhoods. As neither her father, nor her grandfather are still alive to tell their own stories, Julia has taken it upon herself to ensure their voices are heard.

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