“The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris

I read this with two of my friends for our bookclub because we all happened to have ARCs of it at the time. The premise sounded interesting, so we were eager to jump in. I thought it would be a fast, propulsive read that would have me at the edge of my seat the entire time. But although it started out good, the story was a huge letdown by the end that left me and my group quite unsatisfied.

Genre

Thriller

Series

n/a

Pubbed

June 2021

From Goodreads

Get Out meets The Stepford Wives in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

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 microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred 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 elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

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 realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist. (Goodreads)

My thoughts

This book is crazily overhyped. The premise holds a lot of promise that it does not deliver on, so I was annoyed at it and frustrated by the end and am now wondering why it’s getting so much buzz.

It starts out promising. Nella is a young Black woman working at a popular publishing company that is staunchly set in its whiteness and doesn’t want to budge from it. Being one of very few minorities working at the company, and the only Black woman, she experiences racial microaggression on a daily basis. However, one day another young Black woman visits the office and Nella learns that she is a new hire who will join the editorial assistant pool. Nella is happy for this, glad to have another sistah at the company to commiserate with. But the other Black girl, Hazel, doesn’t seem to fully reciprocate Nella’s feeling of companionship. Soon Nella begins to receive odd, mysterious notes at the office and realizes that there’s another side to Hazel.

It’s so hard to put my thoughts together for this book. On one hand, I want to go in detail about how I feel because I think the promotion for this book is making it out to be something it’s not. (It does not make me think of Get Out at all!) But on the other hand, I want to keep this brief because that’s faster, so I’ll shoot for the middle.

The story itself starts out interesting enough and had me hooked at first as Nella talks about her experiences being the only Black woman in an office environment and the shit she has to deal with in that situation, which I could strongly relate to. But because the plot takes the entire book to build, I felt worn down by Nella obsessing about her job and Hazel. I got so tired of Nella and the plodding plot that I was tempted to stop reading, which I did. I only finished the book so that I could discuss it with my bookclub friends, but it was torture to continue with it to the end.

The entire book is one big setup with things taking off a few pages close to the end before wrapping up so quickly that it felt underwhelming. For all the setup we received in 300+ pages, I expected a more impressive ending, but it left me with a lot more questions than answers about the intentions of the characters and the author and left me thinking that this book was not planned out well and should have been shortened.

A character introduced in the prologue and mentioned several times throughout (the former editor Kendra) seemed like she would be important to the plot but didn’t factor much in it or in the resolution, so by the end I wondered what was the point of mentioning her so often. (I really thought Kendra would be important in helping Nella in some way or leading the movement or SOMETHING!) I also wish Nella’s best friend and boyfriend had received a bit more development. I liked her best friend, but her only purpose was to serve as a sounding board for the issues Nella was having at work, and I wish her boyfriend had more substance than just being there so that Nella could complain about what it’s like having a White boyfriend who just doesn’t understand what she’s dealing with at work. We get nothing from him than that (except that one time when Nella thought he wanted her to be more like Hazel… something like that).

Nella interested me at first but quickly annoyed me. She seemed obsessed with work and Hazel, so at first, I was expecting the story to become a psychological thriller where the reader is misled in thinking Hazel is the bad one but it was Nella all along… I think that would have been way more interesting than what we got (which probably wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t take a weird turn into “mind-controlling hair cream” territory that’s not adequately explained). I just wish there was more to Nella than just work, Hazel, and constantly mentioning Black Twitter (which also became annoying too, like, okay. I get it. You know about Black Twitter and read it often. I get it).

The book isn’t great, but despite the issues I had while reading it, what’s really frustrating me is how it’s being promoted because it’s being made out to be this great book written for Black people containing “sly social commentary” and I can’t help wondering why this is being said. I’m still trying to puzzle out what the “sly social commentary” is. Nella straight-up calls out the issues in her work environment and book publishing, so nothing sly there. And if there is some social commentary in the bits about mind-controlling hair cream that makes Black women more tolerant of racial microaggressions in the office space, then I missed it and would like someone to explain it to me. I do not get what the author is saying with that or the fact that Black women created such a product or how the story ends. I don’t get it.

I also don’t feel like this story was written for me (a Black woman). I mean, yeah, it felt good to see something I experienced in the office space represented in the first chapter or so of the book, but Nella stays so stuck on certain things that after a while I no longer felt like I was the audience for this book. To me, Nella is either always explaining herself (trying to explain her experiences to someone so that they will validate how she feels/should feel) or is overcompensating for something (that’s what I think when she CONSTANTLY mentions Black Twitter and doesn’t talk about anything else other than work, Hazel, and some Black social commentary that leads to Black Twitter. She has NO interests outside those things).

This one didn’t work for me. I think it needed an editor to cut and tighten it up some. There was potential early on in the story, but as it kept going, it lost me. However, loads of other people on Goodreads enjoyed it, so I may be one of a handful of odd ducks on rating this so low.

Overall: ★★☆☆☆

It’s not a great read and the hype will have you expecting a lot more than you should. However, it is interesting and will make for great book club discussions, so I recommend that you read and discuss it with someone.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

Grab a copy from the library.

For “sly social commentary” in a debut novel about Black experience, try…

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

It’s a satire that will probably piss you off, but it’s SO good!!

30 thoughts on ““The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris

  1. I came over to your review via The Traveling Bookworm (and have now added you to my feedly feed). I did enjoy this book, although I didn’t think it lived up to the hype and wasn’t quite as advertised (like Queenie, which was NOT the Black Bridget Jones!) – I kept reading it was on the edge of thriller/horror, which was putting me off, so when someone said it wasn’t that horrible I went for it! However, yes, it was rushed, it wasn’t really even a thriller as such, and I was really annoyed that we lost sight of the boyfriend.

    I’m very interested to read your view as a Black reader and your comment that you don’t think it was written for you. Do you feel it was written for a White audience? As a White woman I did find it illuminating to read about the microaggressions and general institutional racism in publishing, and I also read the boyfriend as partly a (OK bit of a two-dimensional) demonstration of how to be a good ally at the beginning. So maybe it was written for that purpose, however I was thinking as I went through I hope Black women feel represented by this as it’s rare to find this kind of novel getting right out there into the mainstream. But I’ve only read reviews by other White people, so I’m glad to have read your thoughts too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! Thanks for visiting and following 😊 I’m glad you had a better time with it and found it illuminating.

      Yes, tbh, I do think it was written for a White audience. I don’t know if that was the author’s intent, but that’s how I felt as the story progressed and after completing the book. I’ve seen a few other Black readers express similar sentiments as well. I find it hard to articulate why I think this, but I’ll try. At first (in the first couple pages), I liked that situations I’ve experienced in the office space were expressed in a book, but the story really seems to zone in and stay stuck on those issues to the point where they became tiring to read because it was like being in those situations again. After a while, I was like “Okay, I know. I get it.” I kept thinking that over and over again to the point where I started to think “Okay, maybe this isn’t for me” because the author wouldn’t have to drive the point (such issues) so hard to get Black readers to understand microaggressions in the workplace or to get how uncomfortable these situations are. We would understand it immediately.

      As for reviews, so far (which is up until I posted my review in June), I’ve noticed that mostly White reviewers give it a high rating on Goodreads. A good bit of the middle to lower ratings were from Black reviewers. I’ve also seen some Black reviewers on Instagram give it middle to low ratings. I think the book does a good job of getting readers who aren’t people of color or who probably have not encountered such situations in the workplace to understand what it’s like and how uncomfortable and stressful it is. However, there’s a lot that needed to be tightened up and fixed or that wasn’t fully explored because I think Nella is also struggling with how she was raised, which makes her think she’s not Black enough (in terms of culture). I think that was interesting and should have been explored more especially in regards to the weird mind-controlling hair cream, which, for me, was a huge issue. THAT hair cream should have been explored more. Why would Black women create such a thing? I’d really love to know.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much for giving my question so much thought, I really appreciate that. I wonder if it was also a case of this being a first novel and fairly autobiographical, so getting it all out there in one rush. However, as you say, a few mentions would have been enough for a Black reader to engage and feel their experience was being portrayed.

        I have been thinking about the cream and getting a bit cross about it: why would Black women create something that allowed them to prosper and get on by basically making them a) be immune to racism, b) present themselves such that White people accepted them more. Why not work to remove the racism in the first place and dismantle the institutional racism? Maybe that comes next, once they’ve achieved higher positions, if I’m being kind to the book.

        At least, I suppose, it does explain exactly what living with piling on on of microaggressions does to people – and White people can learn from that, many from one book, so the work gets done in reading it.

        I’d be interested to know what books you feel are written for you as a Black woman and which you would recommend more highly than this (of course I don’t expect you to labour over that, maybe an idea for a linked blog post, though, as I imagine a lot of people would be interested in that). I believe in doing the work myself and am doing a lot of reading around communities different to my own, esp these two months of my 20 Books of Summer challenge, but even reading lots of reviews it’s sometimes hard to find what chimes with those actual communities and represents them authentically.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yea, I think part of the problem with the book is that it’s her first novel so the problems are expected. I’m just a little annoyed at how they are going about promoting it, and I do wonder if I’d have reacted so strongly to it if I hadn’t felt a little misled by the promotion. Oh well.

          There are a lot of great books by Black authors throughout the diaspora that do a great job talking about Black experiences and sometimes list search on Google that brings up results on Goodreads, Book Riot, blogs, or vlogs on YouTube lists a lot of them. A lot of folks love Jesmyn Ward’s books because they have a Toni Morrison vibe to them and I HIGHLY recoomend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi if you haven’t yet tried it.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Yes, I think that’s the main problem, the first novel thing. I will be interested to see what she does next. I was thinking in the middle of the night she should have made the hair oil smell of things White people like if it was going to make people get on in an institutionally racist world, room for a bit more satire! Anyway, Google handily gives me lists written by White people (Facebook gives me ads for dresses made of traditional African print fabrics so I’m obviously messing with their algorithms) but I did find one from Elle by Sharmaine Lovegrove and have followed her on Twitter – I’m also collecting Bernadine Evaristo’s curated reprint list. I’m also gradually finding more Black bloggers to follow for their views. The Gyasi is already on my wishlist, so thanks for confirming that as a valid choice; with historical stuff I do better with non-fiction than fiction; at the moment, I’m busy exploring UK-centric history as I feel I need to understand that more deeply first. I’m so glad so much has got published and been made available and am trying to snap it all up then drip-feed it out to my blog readers!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my gosh, I have not read this book but could tell just by reading its description that I wouldn’t like it. Most of the time when books get hyped up, they usually don’t live up to it in my opinion. I’m glad you gave a thorough and honest review of this. As much as I do want to support POC writers, I still don’t want to read trash either or waste my money. Thanks for posting this!

    Like

    1. Thanks! Yea, it just didn’t work out and wasn’t as thrilling as I thought it would be and the pacing could have been better too and… so many other issues.

      Like

  3. The author credits her partner now fiancee with the mind altering hair grease idea.

    You can also pump gas through the hexotronic ducting that brings the fibre optic cables into most buildings. The fibre is pure glass so nothing much effects it. One can select a single building, a suburb, even countries.

    One could control the evil hairless people this way 💅

    Like

      1. Absolutely, I totally agree.
        Although the guy is genius with the poison hair cream idea and worthy of the relationship promotion .

        Poisoned shoe’s, beautiful beautiful poisoned boot’s in the sizes of the offender’s desiring!

        Like

        1. Check out the article on VULTURE New York
          How to write a twist ending interview with the author.

          It’s always Best to use a fresh and locally sourced potion!!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been really looking forward to this one because of the publishing angle but it’s true that any book with the amount of hype that this one has had is in a difficult position. My copy is due back at the library after Black Buck…so I will read that one first anyhow…I’ll try to remember to come back and reread both your posts on them when I’m finished. Hope you enjoy your next read more!

    Like

  5. Sorry to hear you had to force your way through this one, that’s not fun. But having done that perhaps your review can help add to any discussion about the book. It’s nice gettting to hear different perspectives instead of nothing but hype, which can begin to appear artificial when that’s all there is.

    Like

  6. Ahh, sorry to read this was such a letdown for you, Zezee! I’m not going to read this after your review, that’s for sure 😉 Hopefully, your next book will be better!

    Like

  7. Great review! I love how in depth you were. I haven’t read it yet and from your review I probably won’t because I cannot stand when a book has that “slow burn” feel but then a less than exciting ending.

    Like

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