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In Every Mirror She's Black

Review

In Every Mirror She's Black

Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström offers a nuanced and expansive view of Black womanhood in her searing debut novel, IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK. The book tells the occasionally intersecting stories of three women who find themselves building new lives in Sweden, where they must adjust to life in a culture that is less than welcoming (and, in some cases, outright hostile) to people --- especially women --- of color.

The Nigerian-born Kemi is a successful, thirty-something marketing executive, but she feels stymied in her career in the U.S. and is striking out in the romance department. A much-needed change conveniently arrives in the form of an unsolicited job offer from a prominent Swedish marketing firm that wants to hire her as its new director of global diversity and inclusion. Kemi is understandably hesitant, fearing she’d be nothing more than a prop for a company seeking to add some color to its upper levels of management. Plus, there’s the off-putting manner of CEO Jonny von Lundin. (It quickly becomes clear that he’s likely on the autism spectrum.) Still, she decides to take a risk and accept the job.

"...[IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK is] full of complex, thoughtfully drawn female characters.... This multilayered tale...shines a light on the diversity of women’s experiences."

Brittany, a flight attendant, also has her life upended by Jonny. He falls for the stunning former model who he meets on a D.C.-to-London flight, though his determination to possess her is more like obsession than love. She’s wary but can’t deny an intense sexual attraction to the enigmatic businessman, who comes from one of the richest families in the country. He seduces her with his wealth, his devotion, and what she believes is his inability “to lie to her face.” Before long, he plucks her from her life in America and transports her to Scandinavia.

Finally, there's Muna, a young Somali refugee who lost her entire family before arriving in Sweden. More than anything, the lonely, traumatized Muna craves connection, whether it's with Ahmed, a Syrian refugee whom she meets at the Solsidan asylum center; Gunhild, the Swedish woman who helps her adjust to life in the strange country; or Kemi, whom she encounters when cleaning the von Lundin company offices.

Sweden has a reputation as a progressive place, but Muna, Kemi and Brittany all discover the ways in which they are not welcome in a culture that values conformity and consensus. Each begins her life in a new country cautiously hopeful but ultimately ends up disillusioned by the realities of being a woman and a minority in an overwhelmingly white culture. The Muslim Muna worries she’ll never be accepted in Sweden, while her jilbab makes her a target of stares and street harassment.

Meanwhile, for Kemi, everything from her clothing to her approach to managing marketing campaigns marks her as an outsider. Jonny’s wealth allows Brittany to live a life of luxury, but she feels “bare and vulnerable” whenever she ventures outside of her “protective bubble.” Learning the language is particularly difficult for both her and Kemi, further complicating their attempts to be accepted. “When she had to speak Swedish, she retreated with insecurity like a snail into its shell once touched,” Åkerström writes of Brittany. Both also fear, with good reason, that they are seen more as curious, exotic objects than as real people. In one memorable scene, Kemi realizes a man she’s considering embarking on an affair with only “wanted to sample her like cheese handed out on toothpicks.”

Åkerström, a Nigerian-American travel writer who currently lives in Sweden, resists any temptation to force her characters together into a mutually supportive trio of friendship. Instead, they remain largely isolated from each other. Though their paths cross at times, these occasional moments of connection fail to develop into something deeper, or, in one case, devolve into outright hostility. Muna, Kemi and Brittany may be of the same race, but their wildly different experiences, attitudes and goals separate them in important ways. Åkerström lets each woman's story play out in its own sobering way, as each gradually comes to terms with the gap between their imagined life in Sweden and their day-to-day reality.

IN EVERY MIRROR SHE'S BLACK is engaging and ambitious, striving to depict a wide spectrum of women’s experiences. Åkerström occasionally overwhelms readers with a barrage of narrative twists and dramatic moments, which feels out of place in a book full of complex, thoughtfully drawn female characters. But these missteps don’t blunt the impact of this multilayered tale, which shines a light on the diversity of women’s experiences.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on September 10, 2021

In Every Mirror She's Black
by Lolá Ákínmádé Åkerström

  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728240387
  • ISBN-13: 9781728240381