REVIEW: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

In brief: Nella is the only Black person in her workplace. So when Hazel starts, she should feel happy – right? But Hazel is suddenly taking over the office and Nella starts receiving messages to leave the workplace. But this isn’t just about work…

The good: An incredible debut novel that fizzes with energy.

The not-so-good: I don’t know what to make of Nella’s decision!

Why I chose it: Sounded like a great read. Thanks to Bloomsbury for the copy.

Year: 2021

Pages: 357

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Setting: Predominantly New City

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Normally I’m fairly immune to the hype surrounding books, but I can confidently tell you that any hype you read regarding The Other Black Girl is 100% justified. This novel is an incredible debut with everything you would want in a story – drama, friendship, mystery and a twist on a twist that you couldn’t possibly see coming. It’s electrifying how detailed the plot, characters and writing is. Zakiya Dalila Harris is now firmly on my ‘I’ll read anything by this author list’.

The novel has been described as an ‘edgier The Devil Wears Prada’ but it’s much more than a workplace story (it’s also set in a publishing office rather than a magazine). Nella has always wanted to work in publishing and now she’s an assistant at Wagner, with a promotion hopefully on the horizon. Nella is the only Black employee there, and even though she’s been disappointed at their middling attempts at diversity, she’s tried to ignore it. She has a great boyfriend and best friend to discuss race issues with outside of work, plus she really wants to be an editor. Enter Hazel, another Black woman and assistant to another editor. At first Nella is thrilled to have another person of colour in the office, but Hazel seems to be taking over the office. Nella’s editor asks Hazel for advice, people want Hazel to do sensitivity reads…it’s all Hazel. Nella also starts receiving anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner. Is it Hazel? Who can Nella trust? And what if it all turns out to be much, much bigger than a workplace drama…?

The Other Black Girl has a lot going on but it’s done so well that the reader never feels lost. There’s a historical thread running through the book which starts to make sense early on and then another complicating factor is added to the mix which really just makes you want to read on more. The mystery of who is trying to get Nella to leave is much more than it seems at first and this makes it more enjoyable as more players and motivations come into the mix. The mystery mixes in well with the novel’s themes of race, class and diversity as well as the need to ‘fit in’ and be something you are not – not even to get ahead, but just to stay in the race. Nella’s experience with racial bias was portrayed well, making clear the hurdles she had to jump to even be seen at Wagner and in life. This made the decision she is presented with at the end of the novel clearer as to why she would choose one option over another, but it’s not an easy one to make. The novel also tackles the lack of diversity in publishing and the lack of Own Voices with a satirical subplot of a white male author writing about a Black woman during the opioid crisis. He sees no problem with giving the Black characters ridiculous names and stereotypical backgrounds, yet when Nella calls it out, nobody sees the problem. It’s frustrating but it’s also revealing.

I loved that The Other Black Girl made me think and entertained me. It’s satirical, thrilling, bold and unique. Well worth reading – just do it on a weekend so you can continue reading non-stop.

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