Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo is not at all what I was expecting from the cover or the blurb. It is a fairly linear story, but told partly in prose, partly in verse and partly in a sort of condensed dialogue format which swings from internal to external. It doesn’t suffer from this and in fact, unlike some other readers, I enjoyed the constant changes in pace and format.
Two characters from very different backgrounds – Jessie and Stanley – form an unlikely and passionate romance and set out on a travel adventure across Europe. But Jessie the diva is domineering, and Stanley the banker is meek, and the consequences are obvious to everyone – except to Jessie, who cannot keep a grip on any relationship because she cannot relax her grip on anyone or anything.
Although Jessie is the dreamer who has big hopes about driving from London to Australia, it is straight-laced Stanley who is the real mystic – ghosts travel through time and visit him, and try to show him all the black people who have been deliberately left out of history. He meets Shakespeare’s dark lady, Mary Seacole (Florence Nightingale’s contemporary, who is often overlooked because of her race), and Joseph Bologne (a black French colonel and classical composer). Other figures, who history has forgotten were black or mixed-race, reassert their identities – Pushkin and Hannibal.
What Soul Tourists does suffer from, however, is a distinct lack of soul and an absence of resolution. It starts with a bang and a fascinating look into a young man’s relationship with his father. But then the father dies, and that’s an end of that. An oddly sexy though sexless scene in a nightclub sets the relationship in motion. And then once again it doesn’t really go anywhere. Sure, the bumbling duo visit cities and countries, and Stanley travels back in time via his communion with ghosts, but so what? Jessie and Stanley, themselves, never really go anywhere, on their personal journeys. They are curiously soulless. I dunno, maybe that was the point. But as a reader it left me feeling depressed and let down.