Bernardine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other” – book review

Known to quite a few people as “the other Booker winner (not the Atwood)”, Evaristo’s book recently came out in paperback with a lovely very tempting cover.

Girl Woman Other chronicles the lives of black British women who are linked either by family relations (the book covers several mother-daughter pairs) or tangential connections.

Be warned though, the novel uses no formal sentences. Apart from commas, there is little punctuation. However, the sentence “chunks” tend to be separated by line divisions which makes me the book relatively easy to read.

Girl, Woman, Other is a very British novel in many ways- not only because most of the characters (though not all) huddle around London. It is also British in the way it handles middle-class and working-class anxiety.

This is not really a review of the novel, but rather an attempt to sketch it out on paper in front of me, trying to appreciate the tying together of different subplots and issues. Spoilers abound, so please don’t read this if you are worried about them!

We start with Amma, a black lesbian theatre director who is just about to launch her first play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey. at the National Theatre. Amma is an anti-establishment/now-turned-establishment intellectual living in a trio of lovers, and missing her best friend, Dominique.

I recognized Amma’s pattern of behavior with a certain feeling of dread.

“Shirley never once complained when Amma needed to borrow money to pay off her debts, which she sometimes wrote off as birthday presents

it felt one-way for a long time until Amma reasoned she made Shirley’s safe and predictable life more interesting and stimulating”

Don’t we all know this kind of person? The one who thinks they are God’s gift to mankind… the one who thinks that others who lead boring average lives have to be pitied, because they have somehow achieved greatness…anyhow… don’t get me started.

Amma is the anchor of the novel, we circle round her and return to her at the very end.

Yazz is Amma’s daughter. She is feistily political and busy negotiating all aspects of her identity while going through university.

One of my favourite pieces of dialogue is between Yazz and her white friend Courtney.

“people won’t see you as just another woman anymore, but as a white woman who hangs with brownies, and you’ll lose a bit of your privilege, you should still check it, though, have you heard the expression, check your privilege, babe

Courtney replied that seeing as Yazz is the daughter of a professor and a very well-known theatre director, she’s hardly underprivileged herself, whereas she, Courtney, comes from a really poor community where it’s normal to be working in a factory at sixteen and have your first child as a single mother at seventeen, and that her father’s farm is effectively owned by the bank.

yes but I’m black, Courts, which effectively makes me more oppressed than anyone who isn’t, except Waris who is most oppressed of all of them (don’t tell her that)

in five categories: black, Muslim, female, poor, hijabbed

she’s the only one Yazz can’t tell to check her privilege

Courtney replied that Roxane Gay warned against the idea of playing ‘ a privilege Olympics’ and wrote in Bad Feminist that privilege is relative and contextual (…) is Obama less privileged than a whit hillbilly growing up in a trailer park with a junkie single mother and a jailbird father? (…) Roxane argues that we have to find a new discourse for discussing inequality.

Yazz doesn’t know what to say when did Court read Roxane Gay – who’s amaaazing?”

I just feel I really need to go and read Roxane Gay now.

Our next heroine is Amma’s friend Dominique. Dominique got seduced by this weird controlling American woman Nzinga. It takes Dominique a while to get away from Nzinga’s spell.

The story continues with Carole, the investment banker from London who was gang-raped as a child – but still ended up going to Oxford. I don’t think the narrator is very fond of Carole. I think she could have been made more interesting.

Then we have Carole’s Mum, Bummi, – who on the one hand is super proud of her child for going to a famous university, on the other hand, resents her for her posh accent.

Bummi is initially very upset that her daughter has married a white man. We are presented with the story of Brummi’s brutal upbringing in Nigeria. It is at this point that the novel begins to remind me slightly of a multigenerational family tale (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

She is followed LaTisha, Carole’s friend from school, who is a single parent of three children and is striving to become a supermarket manager. She doesn’t seem to really “fit” with the rest of the narrative. I don’t think she appears in the novel’s final chapter. I feel she is almost there to fulfill the description of a certain “type”.

Next, we have Shirley’s perspective. She taught both LaTisha and Carole at school. She had great ambitions of being an excellent teacher and leading troublesome kids without prospects into a better future. But the British teaching system is grinding her down.

Then we have Shirley’s mother, Winsome, originally from Barbados, Winsome (spoiler alert!) had an affair with Shirley’s husband Lennox. This was a bit of a shocker for me, as I thought Shirley and Lennox seemed remarkably normal, but apparently, that would just be too boring.

Winsome is followed by Penelope – who is ostensibly the only white character (but we will eventually find out that she isn’t…) Like Amma, she too dreads what she finds to be the ordinary boring life

“Penelope’s parents were dull and dispassionate automatons crawling towards their deaths

she wrote in her diary at the age of fourteen”

But unlike, Amma, and like Shirley (who works in the same school as Penelope does) , she is stuck living a rather conventional life – her first husband forbade her to go to work – so she divorced him. The second, a psychoanalyst, betrayed her with one of his patients. Now her children have left to live abroad and she spends her life with her dog – and occasionally gossiping with her cleaner (Bummi).

Next is Megan/Morgan, who starts a woman and later identifies as ‘they’. Megan at first struggles with finding herself – and tries to find herself with a variety of addictive substances and then finds a guide in Bibi, a man who has transitioned into a woman Megan/ Morgan also feels completely misunderstood by her parents. The only family member who she feels accepted by is her grandmother, Hattie.

Hattie was born to a mother who was half Abyssinian – and a British father. Her beloved husband, Slim was born in Georgia, USA. Slim’s brother died in a lynching.

Hattie is now a matriarch, ninety and still working on the family farm. But she still remembers the child that she gave birth to as a teenager – which her parents forced her to give up…

Grace was Hattie’s mother  – and her story is that of growing up mixed-race early 20th century Britain – a surprisingly happy one, all things considered. Apart from post-partum depression.

The last new point of view to be introduced in the novel is Ronnie – Yazz’s black and gay Dad, an acknowledged academic and commentator on political debates for the BBC.

Then we have a wrap – most of the multiple voices in the novel (of characters that are still alive) get their final say in the afterparty after the premier of Amma’s play.

And that’s kind of it. It’s a story about heritage and reinvention. It’s a story about the issues of being black, female, or simply different than everyone else in the UK.

I enjoyed Evaristo’s writing- it is not only lyrical and evocative but brisk, incisive, and witty. This is a very difficult combination to achieve in a style that is often close to prose poetry.

I do think that she has succeeded in uniting the multiple voices into an intertwined, polyphonous whole.

I also suspect many will try to write similar novels and be surprised how much skill such an enterprise requires.

I am left curious about Evaristo’s other work. Perhaps The Emperor’s Babe at some point?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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