‘I ain’t no homosexual, I am a Barrysexual!’: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

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There’s so much to love about Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, starting with the title. A phrase that conjures up images of heterosexual virility (I hadn’t heard of the Shabba Ranks song before reading this book) headlines a story about a 74-year-old gay British-Antiguan man who, yes, does sleep around, but is ultimately devoted to his boyhood best friend Morris. Barry, our hilarious but poignant protagonist, is still in the closet. While he knows he’s attracted to men, he shuns the term ‘homosexual’, which for him means effeminate; ‘I, for one, do not wear make-up, dye my hair, or do the mince-walk… I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’. Barry has been unhappily married to Carmel for more than fifty years, but can’t bring himself to tell her the truth, even though she knows he’s been unfaithful. He’s afraid of how it will affect his relationship with his two daughters, Donna and Maxine, but perhaps even more than that, he’s scared of people seeing him as something that he thinks he’s not. A tea-time scene early in the novel where Carmel’s closest female friends are casually homophobic and Barry tries to call them out on it, but is assumed to just be being his usual disruptive and misogynistic self, shows what the stakes are.

Barry’s story feels like the perfect companion to the twelve narratives that Evaristo highlighted in her brilliant Girl, Woman, OtherHis voice is both unforgettable and very carefully crafted, two things that don’t always go together; it’s relatively easy to write an outrageous narrator if you want to, but more difficult to make them feel like a real person by remembering that people don’t sound the same when you put them into different circumstances. For example, as Barry explains to grandson Daniel, who is jealous of his freedom to speak patois: ‘you got to treat patois as a separate language that you slip into when it’s socially acceptable to do so. I can speak the Queen’s when I feel like it. But most of the time I just do me own thing. Fear thee not, though, I know my syntax from my semiotics, my homographs from my homophones, and don’t even get me started on my dangling participles.’ In this scene, Evaristo tells us so much about Barry – his pride at being an autodidact, his inability to resist sexual innuendo – and about the ways in which language is used to enforce class and race prejudice (Daniel has been forbidden to speak patois by his mother because she thinks it will make him sound stupid).

Nevertheless, I didn’t completely adore this novel in the way that I was expecting to (and I know that I’m in the minority here, given how glowing its Goodreads reviews are). Structurally, it didn’t quite work for me. [Spoilers ahead, although it’s difficult to ‘spoil’ a novel like this that is so character-led.] The main tension throughout Mr Loverman is: will Barry ever come clean to Carmel, move in with Morris, and be open with the world about who he really is? Evaristo positions this as the central conflict, so it can’t be resolved until near the end of the novel. Because of this, though, there are quite a few sequences in Mr Loverman that felt like the novel was spinning its wheels, such as a scene where Barry goes to a gay pub for the first time (I know this was supposed to be part of his induction into gay culture, but the scene didn’t connect emotionally for me, and seemed more of an excuse to introduce some vivid but inconsequential minor characters). The stalling on this made me wonder if Mr Loverman should have been much shorteror whether Evaristo should have had Barry come out at the midpoint, giving her more time to deal with the fallout, which is rather hastily tidied up at the end.

Furthermore, having waited so long for Barry to tell Carmel the truth, I wanted this to be a serious dramatic moment, and the novel doesn’t deliver. When Barry finally screws up his courage and decides to ask for a divorce, Carmel pips him to the post, having found out about his sexuality during a long visit to Antigua, and tells him that she’s dumping him. I can absolutely see why Evaristo made this decision. She recognises, quite rightly, that Barry is not the only victim of this marriage, and hands agency back to Carmel after her years of stifled suppression. This narrative decision also emphasises that ‘coming out’ is rarely the cathartic moment that you might want it to be. In the end, Barry realises that he finally ‘came out’ when he shouted at a bunch of teenage boys trashing his house, ‘Yes, I am a cock-sucker’. But even so, it felt frustrating to have this central conflict resolved off-screen, sorted whatever Barry did or didn’t do (although there are short sections of the novel narrated from Carmel’s point of view, we don’t hear about her time in Antigua until she finally tells Barry to get lost).

Having said that, this is a novel that deserves a wide readership, and looks like it is finally getting it, seven years after its first publication. As in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo illuminates some of the unheard stories of modern British history, and she does it with huge style. So while I might not quite have fallen in love with Mr Loverman, I still love everything about Evaristo’s literary project.

14 thoughts on “‘I ain’t no homosexual, I am a Barrysexual!’: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

  1. I loved loved loved the way Evaristo handed back the agency to Carmel and felt it would have been a let-down if she hadn’t, although I can see what you mean about the structure. I personally felt it being loose and episodic suited the book. But I’m glad you liked it on balance and I love that piece you quote about patois.

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    • I think the issue for me was that I felt Carmel never really came alive as a character. I loved the prose-poetry style in Girl, Woman, Other, but here I felt Evaristo was still working it out, and Carmel’s story is one that’s fairly familiar in fiction, so I didn’t feel there was anything distinctive enough about her for me to catch on to. I did sympathise with her but I didn’t feel for her as I did Barry. Perhaps the final showdown between them would have worked better for me if it hadn’t taken quite so much agency away from Barry and if Carmel hadn’t been quite so totally reinvented after her jaunt to Antigua, which felt a bit unlikely, especially given that we didn’t see it play out.

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    • I’m not sure I’ll try Evaristo’s much earlier novels because I hear they veer more towards the poetry side of prose-poetry, which isn’t a style that works for me. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it, though!

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  2. Great review! I’ve seen so many glowing responses to this book over the last several months but I think in the end I will probably end up agreeing with your take. Your mentioning that this is a nice companion to the perspectives of GWO is convincing me that I should still pick it up, although I am also easily frustrated by character-focused books driving toward an obvious conflict/resolution and seemingly just biding time until that moment arrives. But knowing to expect some ups and downs will help, I think, and I do want to read more from Evaristo- I’ve just been a bit wary amid all the hype! I shall adjust my expectations accordingly.

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    • I know what you mean about books just biding their time, but I think this one is very much worth reading. Barry is so vividly written and, despite my problems with Carmel, much of the secondary cast is as well. I loved how subtly Evaristo handled Barry’s relationships with his two daughters, and while some have complained that Morris remained a shadowy figure, I got a strong sense of him – he’s not a demonstrative character but his silence often said a lot. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do decide to read it!

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