There are points in Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl when time seems to slow down: imagine a battle from The Matrix, but fought with gestures, expressions, and microaggressions instead of bullets.
Everyone who’s worked in an office can relate to the anxieties of trying to suss the murmurs from behind your boss’s door, weighing whether a coffee stop is worth it when you’re already running late, and figuring out just how far to go in discussing a verboten topic sotto voce between two cubicles. The stakes are raised, though, for the novel’s protagonist Nella, who’s the only Black employee at a prestigious publishing house…until, to her own amazement, she’s not.
The Other Black Girl arrives as the summer’s hottest debut novel, described as Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada. The office intrigue alone would have made for a compelling read, but Harris (who quit her own publishing-world job to write the book) takes a leap and incorporates a more fantastical second strand of story involving mysteriously desperate games of cloak-and-dagger that come to threaten Nella just as she seems to have found a new ally.
Although that side of the story turns on a technology that could have come from a mid-century creature feature (if, perhaps, a Black girl had been given the opportunities of an Ed Wood), it’s no mere contrivance: the nature of the threat cuts to the core of the difficult dance Nella’s forced to do as a Black woman in the white-dominated field of publishing. Her new coworker, Hazel, seems to pull it off effortlessly; by the end of the book, we learn just how high a price Hazel’s paid.
Harris’s precise descriptions of Nella’s moment-to-moment calculations open her world to readers like me, a white man who’s never known what it feels like to battle both sexism and white supremacy among 21st century culture vultures eager to pay lip service to diversity but likely just as eager to do no more than that. Audiobook narrator Aja Naomi King (with Joniece Abbot-Pratt, Heather Alicia Simms, and Bahni Turpin adding additional voices) revels in the ripping account, whether she’s speaking for the apprehensive Nella, the confident Hazel, or their very on-brand bosses.
Believe the hype: The Other Black Girl is a richly realized journey into uncomfortable places, and you’ll be rooting for Nella to make it out to the other side with her whole self intact. In most thrillers that would indicate a risk to life or limb; here, it’s not that simple.