NETGALLEY BOOK REVIEW: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

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3/5 stars

Hmm. What to say about a book that has a killer concept but a so-so execution?

The Other Black Girl is a workplace thriller (lazily described as a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Get Out–again, publishing companies, there are other Black-focused pieces of media out there!) focusing on Nella, an assistant at a publishing house struggling as the only Black woman in the office. But then in walks Hazel, an impossibly perfect Black woman and a new assistant at Wagner Publishing, who seems to win everyone over while Nella continues to rub people the wrong way. Things start to come to a head when the firm’s banner author submits a manuscript with an offensive, stereotype-laden Black character and Nella speaks up–resulting in anonymous notes on Nella’s desk saying leave Wagner now. But who wrote them?

There is a lot of good stuff here. Nella is a great character, recognisably imperfect, and her rapport with her best friend Malaika is deliciously well-written. There’s also a much-needed skewering of the publishing industry here, with scenes that capture the racism and sexism of big-banner industries and the constant nagging threat that there are tons of rich white kids who can afford to work for free instead. The book’s New York setting is well-realised (God I’m homesick!) and it would’ve functioned just fine as a coming-of-age novel exploring the relationships between women of colour in workplaces.

But it’s not (spoilers ahead). It turns out Hazel’s charm and wit among the painfully-white publishing industry is induced by…. I’m sorry. The plot crux here is mind control delivered through hair grease. There is a lot of dialogue and discussion about natural Black hair–an important thing!–and then the “supernatural” turn of this book is, and I cannot emphasise this enough, mind-control hair grease. There’s a whole underground network of Black women recruiting other Black women into this mind-control hair grease… group? Cult? It’s never 100% clear. To make them more amenable to white people and reach higher positions of power in various industries. I will admit I considered abandoning the book altogether when it got to this ridiculous, Saturday-morning-cartoon-esque twist, but I was already 90% of the way through and sunk cost fallacy and all that. There are messy loose threads out of this development as well, with confusing flashbacks to other Black women recruited into this, flashbacks within flashbacks, and just general first-draft-ness that kept me from fully enjoying this. I can’t say it was completely worthless–again, the majority of the plot is compelling and brings some necessary discussions to the table–but the twist at the end felt like it came out of the same quarantine brain that gave us this. Sorry.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the ARC.

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