REVIEW: BLACK SHOES
By Lisa J. Long
Saturday, February 20, 2010.
Michael Obiora's debut novel Black Shoes, is the story of Daniel Martins, a young successful black British businessman, who finds his life spiralling out of control as he determinedly rages against the black stereotypes, put on him by white police officers and defensive jewellery store assistants.
Daniel seems to have it all; a luxury apartment, nice car and a beautiful girlfriend. But his obsession with proving that he is not the stereotypical gun-toting drug dealer turns into paranoia as his fight against the stereotype becomes a fight against himself. Everything he knows is challenged as he struggles to find his place socially, within his own family and even within the black community.
The opening pages find Daniel in a police cell, feeling every bit the stereotype that he has so long fought against. What follows is a reflection on the experiences that have shaped and challenged his identity from his first sexual encounter with his French teacher through to imminent fatherhood. Written in first person perspective, the novel in its entirety is narrated by the protagonist. The short chapters divided by subheadings work well as a series of reflections rather than a chronological tale, and the style doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative as I had initially expected that it would.
The novel is a psychological insight as much as a story and is not just about identity but relationships, friendships and the consequences of infidelity. Through Daniel’s experiences, we see how the stereotypes attributed to black men and those that Daniel perceives are put upon him shape his choices in all areas of his life, consequently risking his business, his relationship and his friendships, in his obsession with challenging how others see him, and proving he deserves his success.
A key theme of the novel is Daniel’s infidelity, despite his own admission that his long term girlfriend Safra, is his dream woman, he still can’t seem to control his sexual urges and is unfaithful without guilt or remorse. The main target of Daniel’s infidelity is Paula his assistant, who he has sex with at every opportunity.
As Daniel begins to have unfamiliar feelings of guilty about his affair with Paula, he has to question whether this is because of the infidelity or whether it is because fact that the woman he is cheating with is white. When the affair takes a disastrous turn Daniel is forced to confront the consequences of this infidelity, and the possibility of losing Safra becomes very real.
Daniel’s white best friend from childhood is the insouciant George, who Daniel secretly admires for his carefree approach. He never reveals to him his infidelities or the affair he is having with Paula, perhaps in fear of perpetuating another stereotype. As Daniel’s obsession with proving himself grows, he starts to question George’s loyalty and opinion of him as a successful black man. Assuming that George would see him differently if he was white, he loses the ability to see George as anything but a white man and risks losing his closest friend.
Obiora highlights the complexities of identity in his protagonist’s interactions with black people as well as white. Throughout the novel, Daniel is confronted by challenges to his own black identity, his sense of Britishness and his attachment to his African heritage. On one occasion he visits a barbershop, and in barbershop banter, he is challenged on his English surname and his infrequent visits to his mother’s homeland of Nigeria. His sense of discomfort is palpable and he leaves frustrated, vowing to find a new barber.
Obiora successfully animates Daniel’s dream of an inverse world “othershuesquare” -where the notions of domination and white superiority are reversed. In “othershuesquare”, the majority population is black, the posters on the busses feature prominent black people, the beautiful people are black and the successful people are black. The white people are a minority, working in jobs below their professional status, and being abused by the majority black population. This satirical world is the pinnacle of Obiora’s debut and places the reader squarely in Daniel’s shoes - directly challenging the age old “chip on your shoulder” mentality.
With the help of therapist, Vivian, Daniel starts to understand that he is not alone and that he is making is own journey harder by allowing the actual or perceived stereotypes around him affect his choices. He discovers that“ everyones own shoes are the hardest to walk in, especially when we alter our steps for others” .
Though the novel has been marketed as male fiction, I finished it in one sitting, and think it will appeal to all genders, though I think it will be read and understood differently by men and women.
Obiora is a promising writer and you get the feeling that he knows from experience what he is writing. I did find myself wanting to know more about Daniel’s girlfriend Safra, and felt her character lacked depth. This is the only downside to Obiora’s stylistic choice, in what is a very enjoyable book. Though this is more than entertainment, what transpires is a thought-provoking debut, in the so called “post racial”, Post-Obama election era. A timely reminder that although overt racism may be frowned upon, stereotypes are still a very real part of the black experience and the covert nature of this form of racism can be just as destructive.
Black Shoes is available in bookshops and can be bought online at Matador Fictions and at Amazon.co.uk.
Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.