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  • Writer's pictureSandra Walters

Book Review - The Other Black Girl

Authored By: Zakiya Dalila Harris

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and the micro-aggressions, she's thrilled when Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They've only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events cause Nella to become Public Enemy Number One and Hazel, the Office Darling. Then the notes begin to appear on Nella's desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW. It's hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realises there's a lot more at stake than her career. A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

This book has themes of black identity, race, power in the publishing world, intrigue, mind/behavior control, manipulation, trying to fit in, the politics of the publishing world, and using chemical substances (hair grease) to induce changed behaviour.

I would phrase it as the Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out. The book is narrated by four of the characters; Kendra Rae, Nella, Diana, and Shani giving their perspectives of what they think or know is going on at Wagner's publishing house and formerly a firm called Coopers.

The story flips from 1983 to 2018 and gives some insight into the world of authors working with editors. Kendra (Kenny) disappeared in 1983 following being a brilliant editor of Diana’s only successful book – Burning Hearts - Wagners published by a black author and back editor, which was never repeated.

The story is set in New York City where Wagners is based. Nella works for Wagners managed by an exacting editor, Vera, for not much pay. Nella has a white boyfriend, Owen, and they live together. Nella grew up in a majority white area and is struggling with managing her hair which she chose to go natural with for the first time in her life. Nella feels that diversity is not taken seriously.

Hazel shows up at Wagners, another black woman, and things start going wrong for Nella who starts receiving anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagners. Hazel becomes the popular girl who invites Nella to a literary event at a hair salon in Bed-Stuy. For safety Nella attends with her friend, Malaika, where she is given a hair grease concoction that is supposed, unbeknownst to her, to change her personality. Hazel becomes the popular ‘other black girl’/OBG while Nella upsets the most lucrative author, Collin, who is white when, encouraged by Hazel, Nella gives honest criticism of Collin’s latest book submission where he named a black character Shartricia!

It appears as if the founder of Wagners, Richard Wagner, and Diana may be in a relationship and manipulating different companies to ensure that there is only one black woman working there in a significant position. Shani has found out about the manipulation, not explained how. Shani also knows Kendra who has been in hiding because she is scared. Nella ends up being manipulated/mind-controlled and ends up being the second OBG where Shani has gone to work months later like she is a clone of Hazel.

This is a disjointed first book that lacks real coherence and perhaps should have been edited much better. It was difficult to understand the significance of the dates that start each chapter. In many ways, the story was trying to explore too many things and in the end, did not focus on driving the story with a clear theme.

It was an effort to read and perhaps needed to strip out some things, for example, Nella wanting to promote diversity and her black credentials but lived with her white boyfriend seemed contradictory, or the chemicals in the hair grease developed by Diana to change black women was a subject glossed over.

Things seemed to be thrown in for the sake of adding it to the book. There are other authors who have done a much better job with their first novels, such as Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Candice Carty-Williams.

Sat 5 Jun 2021 18.00 BST Lorna

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