In a nutshell: I think this a book with tremendous execution with a twist that isn’t entirely necessary to illustrate the main point.
I’ll start the first part of this without spoilers and then dive into the spoilerific review later.
On a superficial level, this book deals with what it means to be the Only and then One of in an office place. As an Only (female) and soon-to-be One of (Three) (although I don’t think it’s very adversarial!), I felt like Harris did a great job painting the scene for Nella, the Only Black female editorial assistant at a fictional publishing giant who eventually gets what seems like salvation when she becomes One of after a second Black editorial assistant is hired.
Sometimes the paint felt a bit obvious–we get a lot of Nella third person POV that’s very omniscient, such that it feels like Harris might making a few…personal points. I’m comfortable with unreliable narrators, but this almost felt like Harris making a point of ensuring that we didn’t think Nella was exaggerating her treatment, and overshooting the mark slightly.
And while Nella thinks that the tension will ease up when Hazel arrives, Harris does a great job in keeping it elevated by denying Nella the full release she’s seeking. Sometime Hazel rolls her eyes and validates what Nella feels (again, from our vantage point, we know to be true). Sometimes Hazel seems to not get it at all. It’s enormously destabilizing as a reader and to Nella as well, and that tension keeps up throughout the book.
[The issue comes from the twist, which I can at least appreciate not having been spoiler for a la When No One is Watching, which splashed LIKE GET OUT! LIKE GET OUT! in the blurb itself. After all, this book falls in the same category–the sinister secret underpinning everything in the publishing house isn’t plain old racism, it’s an underground network of psychotropic hair grease distributors who are attempting to negate the effects of systemic racism by making professional Black women incapable of feeling its ongoing, day-to-day stings.
And look, I think that messaging is strong. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a literal and metaphorical balm for the injustices that indignities that women => women of color => Black women especially face in the office / community / life in general? And who’s to say that being temporarily cut off from the pain and therefore being able to rise to the top won’t eventually pay dividends in the future, when they’re in positions of power?
It’s just that the execution of the “magic realism” twist is a bit off. The main sponsor? founder? financier? is a white man, which brings into question the main messaging (is the neutering just another way for white supremacy to subjugate and profit from the work of people of color? is the joke eventually on him because one day all the top positions will be filled with Black women?). The reliance on pushing a specific hair grease that must be used regularly on unknowing participants belies the notion that women happily swap out what’s working for them for new products–I have South Asian curly hair and it took me 4 years to try a shampoo that my friends have been recommending for years (it’s great, but the routine does need tinkering!).]
I’m glad I went into this mostly cold, and I’m not saying I disagree at all with the points that Harris is trying to make. I would have read a book just on the phenomenon illustrated by the cover.