Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

If ever there was a “zeitgeist” book, Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel, Girl, woman, other is it. It might be an English-set novel about black British women, “the embodiment of Otherness”, but its concerns, ranging from ingrained inequality, racism and sexism to newer issues such as globalisation, are contemporary – and relevant far beyond its setting.

Take, for example, sexual violence. One young woman, after being raped, is not sure exactly what happened:

    wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
    she should have stayed and talked to him about it
    he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no

(Chapter 2: LaTisha)

This could have been set in Australia, given discussions happening here right now. It is truly troubling how many young women apparently feel uncertain about what they’ve experienced, and turn it back on themselves. But now, having leapt in to make my “zeitgeist” point, I’ll start again, properly!

Girl, woman, other is an astonishing book, as most of my reading group agreed. It’s fresh and exuberant, but oh so biting too. As much poetry as prose, it has minimal punctuation and yet it just flows. It’s a risky book – what great art isn’t? – because, in addition to its idiosyncratic style, it comprises multiple points-of-view that move back-and-forth in time. There are four main chapters, each divided into three parts with each part in the voice of a different character. This makes 12 voices in all! The voices within each chapter are closely related in some way – mothers, daughters, friends – but the links between the four chapters are more subtle. This demands much of the reader.

Fortunately, the voices are captivating. Spanning over a century, they range from the ultra-confident 19-year-old Yazz, daughter of a lesbian mother, to 93-year-old Hattie, a strong-minded farmer and great-grandmother. All are women, and all have some genetic links with African or Caribbean cultures, some from a few generations back, others being themselves migrants. Through them, Evaristo interrogates a diversity of experiences and responses to colour, in particular, in contemporary England. Hattie’s mother, for example, had an Abyssinian father, and she herself had married an African-American GI. However, with the colour fading amongst her descendants, the family is less than happy when it is reintroduced by Julie who “saw not the darkness of his skin but the lightness of his spirit”. Hattie reflects

    none of them identifies as black and she suspects they pass as white, which would sadden Slim if he was still around 
    she doesn’t mind, whatever works for them and if they can get away with it, good luck to them, why wear the burden of colour to hold you back?
    the only thing she objects to is when they objected to Chimango when he arrived on the scene, a fellow nurse at the hospital where Julie worked, from Malawi
    Hattie was sickened by their behaviour, they should’ve been more enlightened 
    but the family was becoming whiter with every generation 
    and they didn’t want any backsliding

(Chapter 4: Hattie)

You can see how well the language flows, and how accessible it is. It’s experimental but unforced. You can also see the author’s approach to her subject matter, which is to show, through her characters, different behaviours, values and attitudes. With 12 characters telling of their interactions with even more people, the breadth of humanity Evaristo encompasses is breathtaking – and it is all done without judgement. Some characters might, and do, judge each other, but Evaristo doesn’t. She lets them speak for themselves, which requires us to read attentively.

So, when Dominique’s female lover increasingly restricts her life, we see abusive control long before she does. And, when 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, Grace, experiences postpartum depression in the early 20th century, it is not named. Who talked about that then? But we recognise it immediately.

Issues come and go in this novel, whether they are up-to-the-minute topics, such as Brexit or transgender rights, or ongoing issues in women’s lives such as violence or ageing. Underpinning it all, however, is race and inequality. Being “othered” is common to Evaristo’s characters, and they all deal with it differently, but we see very clearly its debilitating, devastating impact.

    oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

(Chapter 2: Carole)

By now you might be thinking a few things – that the novel is heavy-going, perhaps, or that it’s chaotic. But nothing doing. For all its seriousness – and there are definitely grim moments – the novel has a light touch, frequently bitingly satiric, sometimes simply funny, always human. Nineteen-year-old Yazz, for example, is a hoot with her teenage know-it-all confidence. Many recognise their failings, as they grow older, such as Amma appreciating her father too late or Carole realising her supportive teacher had feelings. Transgender Morgan, the epitome of the modern activist, speaks many truths:

    Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
    which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being

Chapter 4: Megan/Morgan

And, although the novel may sound chaotic, it does have an overarching structure. It starts hours before Amma’s play – the one she hopes will finally make her name – is to premiere at the National Theatre, and it ends with the After Party and an Epilogue, which, combined, bring most of the characters together. The ending, in fact, is clever. The After Party is political, drawing together the threads and reminding us that there’s a long way to go before black people in white societies are not defined by their colour. The Epilogue, on the other hand, is personal, showing us that there’s always human connection and that that, really, is the stuff of life – if only we could all see it.

Girl, woman, other is such a read. Uncompromising in its politics, but also warm and cheeky, it offers heart and intelligence in equal measure.

Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, woman, other
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
ISBN: 9780241985007 (ebook)

30 thoughts on “Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

  1. One of my top-listed books read in 2019. I don’t always/often think “tour de force” but this was definitely one such book. And as you say given the misogynist leeches in the national/state parliaments – absolutely a book for these times – and a reminder of the courage and leadership now coming from Grace, Brittany, Chanel and others…

    • Haha Jim, in an earlier version on this review, I wrote that I don’t like to use “tour de force” because it is a bit of a reviewer cliche. In the end I removed that reference but I agree that it really is, and I hope I conveyed it in my review. So glad you liked it too.

    • Thanks Ian … I haven’t read The testaments, and am not sure I will. I think some suggest that it was a sort of “life achievement” award for Atwood, but who knows what the judges were thinking.

      Anyhow, this novel is so wonderful. I wanted to include quote after quote. Such wonderful language and management of tone.

  2. Great review: Evaristo would be tickled pink ! 🙂
    (I met an Ethiopian woman a couple of weeks back: she is easily the most beautiful young woman I have ever met.)

  3. I’m so glad you loved this too Sue. This was one of my top reads of 2019 and I still keep it on our staff favourites shelf at work. She really should have won the Booker on her own with this one. I’m an Atwood fan, but this was a far superior story.

    • So I hear from a few people Brona. I’m not rushing to read The testaments, much as I have loved Atwood in the past, because I have other things to read. I am very glad my reading group chose this book. I can imagine your keeping it on your staff favourites list. It’s still relevant!

  4. Although I wasn’t in raptures over this book (I did enjoy it), I thought the structure was very clever and I agree with you – it could have been chaos but absolutely was not.

    • That’s interesting Kate. I really loved it, from beginning to end. Just loved the writing and how she covered so many issues though so many different ways of being human.

  5. I know this book made a big splash with U.S. readers, too, especially the folks who read along with The Woman’s Prize. Although I read lots of books by African Americans, I’ve become more interested in the conversation around what “race” is. At first, I couldn’t figure out what people meant by “race isn’t real” or “race is a social construct” because we are SO STEEPED in it in the U.S. Then I listened to a talk by Isabel Wilkerson about her new book, Caste. She explains how race was made up to put people into caste systems, like they have in India. I need to read her book, has her talk was brilliant and informative.

    • Thanks Melanie … over the years I’ve heard discussions about race, having first studied it at university, and how to define it. In the end, the important thing is that certain people are “othered”. Perhaps we should call it “otherism” but I suppose there are different causes – gender/sexuality, skin colour or ethnicity, religion, ability/disability, etc – and each cause can need different ways of overcoming so we do need a name for each??

      I guess what I’m saying is that for the ordinary person, getting bogged down in definition could serve to distract from the real daily issue of what people are facing?

      • Possibly. I know there was a Black is Beautiful movement, and Black Pride, too, around the 1970s. It’s like, race is this made up thing that we’re navigating for negative reasons, and then the folks being othered want to make it positive because they’re not ashamed of who they are, but in the end I’m still wondering why we say things like “African American” when the person I’m talking about many be neither African nor American. Some Americans are afraid of sound racist and catch themselves calling a dark-skinned person from Ireland “African American,” which is funny but also sad.

        • It’s interesting isn’t it, this “labelling”. Why do we do it? Sometimes we do it in blogs to raise awareness of other literatures, which is important to counteract the prevailing fare, but it has such a distancing impact as well. As transgender, multiracial Megan/Morgan says in Evaristo’s book, “essentially she was just a complete human being”.

  6. This was one of my favourite reads last year. I agree it wasn’t heavy at all, despite of the rather tough lives some of them had. But I found it utterly life-affirming, celebrating women and diversity.

    • That’s it stargazer, isn’t it. Evaristo manages to write a book that is truly serious but warm and affirming as well. It’s hard to pull off, but she does it. You come away feeling positive but in no doubt as to the challenges still to be faced.

  7. I enjoyed this one quite a bit too; I had thought it would be the kind of book that required a lot of extra concentration with all the perspectives, but it was so readable that I was carting it around on public transit and reading it as quickly (and contentedly) as possible.

  8. Absolutely loved this book. Had me chuckling and marvelling but I was concerned about an ending. Would the ending do justice to such a complexity of characters ??? Should not have worried ——- it was brilliant.

    • Oh how lovely to hear from you Diane. I agree with all you say. It was hard to imagine how it would end wasn’t it, but it was so cleverly done. My reading group were all amazed too by how easy it was to read – compared to what we expected – and how engaged we became in each character.

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