In my 20 Books of Summer ’20 post I noted that there were a number of reading challenges happening in June and over the summer. Two that I discovered afterwards – thanks to Instagram! – were Pride Month and Read Caribbean month. If you were looking for a tale with elements of both, I’d recommend Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman. Her Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other is on my list to read over the summer, but Mr Loverman was a great read to fit in before tackling the 20 I have lined up (perhaps that it’s still rainy season here in Japan is making it difficult to get started on summer reading…)
In Mr Loverman, ‘Human Valium’ Barry and his friend Morris start the book on the dance floor, two old fellas cutting a rug, while Morris tells Barry he is going to give up drinking and Barry determines to do no such thing, leaving him tiptoeing up the stairs after their night out, trying not to wake up his wife Carmel and cause the inevitable explosion. It could be a scene repeated across many households, with the twist that Barry and Morris have been lovers since their teens, keeping their relationship secret from family, wives, children and now grandchildren. Carmel is not quite 100% fooled, regularly accusing Barry of cheating on her. But with the years passing more rapidly, Barry has decided he wants to spend the rest of his life with Morris. The questions are will he go through with it – and how?
Barry is a dandy, car mad and rich. He has done well out of the property boom in east London since arriving from Antigua, newly married to Carmel, when he invested his factory wages in the rental market. He likes the finer things in life and enjoys his home. Although barely tolerating Carmel’s kitsch, he has grown comfortable and safe, sitting on his carved antique ‘throne’ at the head of the table. Does he really want to blow his life apart to be with Morris? How will Morris take it when his earlier proposal to do just that was so firmly rejected by Barry?
With flashbacks to their younger days of first meeting in the 60s, when as Barry says, ‘both of us was desperate to be anything other than what we was,’ and the present-day story in Stoke Newington and the gay pubs in Soho, where Barry’s daughter Maxine’s friend Lola theorises about things Morris and Barry have lived through, Mr Loverman is a comprehensive examination of what it is to be gay, in the closet, Black, from elsewhere, living in London, a father, a husband, a liar, a lover and a good provider. Following the code which he was raised to believe showed how to be a man, while loving another man for all his life, Barry is the kind of character that leaps off the page at a reader. He is far from perfect, but it is impossible not to be pulled into his story and to hope that he and Morris can work everything out.
That is not to say that there haven’t been victims along the way and it would be easy to hate Barry for what he has done to his family, leaving emotional scars that won’t easily heal. Eldest daughter Donna is an academic who has struggled with love and who takes her mother’s side constantly. Her son Daniel is being put through public school by Barry and is on his way to greatness. Younger daughter Maxine grew up closer to her dad and works as a fashion stylist, lamenting all the trust-fund kids she has to compete against while quite brazenly tapping daddy for support. And wife Carmel is supposed to be a battleaxe, with a chorus of strong women friends around her that Barry detests, but who are Carmel’s lifeline – along with the colleagues who first pull her out of her shell.
Traditional marriage hasn’t done well for either Barry or Carmel: they liked dancing together and how the other one looked, but their expectations of marriage were so far apart that after 50 years together, they are still strangers to each other. And Carmel may not have been accurate in terms of with who, but she was being cheated on and she knew that something was missing. She has suffered when he has been callous to her. There is at times a cruel streak in Barry, he stayed with her for the sake of reputation and for the children, it is true, but also out of fear. For all his professed love for ‘my Morris,’ he has been off-hand there too. His secret has festered and the closet doesn’t only trap the closeted person themselves. Carmel’s been ‘waiting 20 years for him to love’ her, while he’s been
too used to being in a prison of my own making: judge, jailor and jackass cellmate.
Mr Loverman could be a heavy story, but Bernardine Evaristo’s skill in weaving the different emotions and reactions to Barry’s predicament elevates it. Grandson Daniel having to stay over while Carmel is back in Antigua at her father’s funeral is the catalyst for a life-shattering confession that manages to convey the generation gap in immigrant communities, the homophobia of certain genres of music and also be surprising, cathartic, tragic and funny. Barry is a self-educated man, happily quoting Shakespeare or James Baldwin, reading J. G. Farrell on the British Empire, or Lola’s gay literature syllabus, while weaving in his theories on politics, culture and family history. He can be warm to friends, like the hippies who were the first wave of gentrifiers, or Donna’s lesbian friend Merle. Carmel is similarly easy and difficult to love: full of Biblical retribution for people like her husband, but having studied and ‘got on’ in life, so when she nailed him as ‘a dibbler-dabbler who hides his flimsy knowledge behind an intellectual self-aggrandizement that is plainly showing off,’ I had to laugh.
Barry has his flaws, has cheated on both Carmel and Morris, but as he reflects back on the changes that he has lived through and how he doesn’t like to buck the system but prefers to subvert it from within, it’s difficult not to be won over. Ultimately the force of Morris and Barry’s feelings for each other, which have seen them go from teenagers in a homophobic society to the toast of Soho, mean you will wish them a happiness that must have seemed so out of reach when they first met:
I’d been under such pressure back home. A young man showing no interest in girls, when he could have any one of them? I was twenty-four when I married Carmel, and I’d almost left it too late for some. They was talking, and I was afraid I’d be up before a judge on some trumped-up charge of indecent exposure; or end up lying on an operating table with a bar of wood between my teeth and electric volts destroying parts of my brain for ever; or in the crazy house pumped full of drugs that would eventually drive a sane man mad.
All very real fears for someone of his generation, as well as still happening today in other parts of the world. If I had one very, very minor quibble, it would be that the AIDS crisis does not rate a mention – both Barry and Morris have lived to an age denied to many of their contemporaries who were out cruising in the 1970s – but perhaps that is a story for another book. Ultimately, that they and their love could survive and thrive is a win.
All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely, romantically, jazzily, funkily, badly, bawdily.
And never, not once, have I felt able to even link arms with the man I love.
I really enjoyed Mr Loverman and the time spent with Barry and now I’m even more excited to read more by Bernardine Evaristo, who I hadn’t heard of before her Booker Prize win – luckily that now means I have lots of books from her to choose from! Do you think you will read Mr Loverman or Girl, Woman, Other, or is there something else that you are looking forward to reading over the summer? Let me know in the comments below…
Author photo from Wikimedia Commons UKLonWikiLa / CC BY-SA