I had seen a lot of hype about this new debut novel, and found I could request it on NetGalley, so I did, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s rare I stay up after normal bedtime just to finish a book because I have to know what happens, but that was certainly the case with this one!

Zakiya Dalila Harris – “The Other Black Girl”

(NetGalley, 18 May 2021)

… the girl was staring at Nella like she’d just proclaimed she’d never seen The Color Purple. “So … you can’t tie scarves, or do flat twists?” Hazel was visibly taken aback.

Nella is the only Black editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing (there used to be one Chinese American woman but she moved on). Of course she encounters faces like hers in the post room and computer department, but the floor she’s on is unremittingly White, and full of the microaggressions you might expect. Then, one day, she smells the smell of a hair product and sees Black hair through a gap in the cubicle wall, and in waltzes Hazel.

But it’s not that simple. Is Hazel her new best friend, or is she a competitor? When Nella worked so hard to get the office diversity events working and tries to speak up about a very unfortunate portrayal of a Black character in a novel, Hazel wafts around making friends and influencing people. And of course she has perfect hair and links to an amazing hair cafe, of course she runs a not-for-profit and supports young Black writers, and of course she has a partner originally from the Dominican Republic and lives in the “right” bit of Harlem, while Nella has always struggled with her hair, and has a White boyfriend (who’s still lovely!) and lives in the bit that White people prefer.

When Nella starts receiving anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner, who could be behind them? Meanwhile, in a dual-time narrative we hear about a couple of Black people in the industry in the 1980s, with parallels to what’s happening now, and a parallel time narrative about another Black woman who’s encountered a “The Other Black Girl” at her workplace with … difficult outcomes.

I can’t write more about the plot but it winds itself up into a story that’s not exactly creepy but has elements of creepiness, but is woven throughout with issues of micro and macroaggressions, Black women’s roles in workplaces, hair competitiveness, forced competitiveness in general, and the exhaustion that comes with code-switching and trying to provide an “acceptable” face of Blackness in a White workplace. Then there’s the issue of being Black enough, of protecting yourself by going to a Black college or running a business or the exhaustion of being out there in the White world. What would you do in Nella’s shoes if you found a way to be less exhausted by all this, to cope with it …?

I love the way Harris doesn’t make any concessions to White readers in this bold and brave and accomplished debut. If we don’t understand about curl types and treatments, why shouldn’t we go and look it up rather than expecting the author to do the work for us? (this is emphasised by the discussion of a White woman colleague experiencing the conversation in the lift, very cleverly). Owen is given as a good example of White allyship:

But it was because he was never too eager – he didn’t feel the need to call all of the things racist all of the time, like a few of the white men she’d dated and known before him – that made Nella trust him the most. He had nothing to prove; he was perfectly content that his worldview, established thirty years earlier by a lesbian couple in Denver and glued in place by a daily viewing of Democracy Now!, had set him on the right course.

The only quibble I had with this book was that we never get to see the end of Owen’s story. But that’s minor. It’s so well done, with thriller elements that don’t drag the book into genre, but leave it its own excellent self. I will definitely look out for what this author does next.

Thank you Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This book is published on 01 June.