TW: Sexual Assault, Misogyny, Mental Health, Racism and Grief
The adoring critics’ comments and praise on the cover of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other are all entirely deserved. It’s undoubtedly a ‘deeply humane’ (The New York Times), moving story that ‘brims with vitality’ (Financial Times) and sparkles with ‘crackling originality’ (Vogue). Evaristo deals with complex issues in our society today, not only making her work incredibly readable but also irresistibly up-to-date.
The book focuses on 12 Black women (non-binary, in Morgan’s case) navigating their lives in different decades in Britain. The interweaving experiences of the characters are as authentic and sensitive as it is gripping. Evaristo handles topics sensitively and forcibly denies the reader the option of shying away from them. We witness a particularly poignant moment where the reader observes two sides to an incident of sexual assault: a withdrawn, traumatised victim; and an oblivious, unknowing parent who wonders why their child suddenly never wants to leave their room. The use of line breaks at such moments highlights the fragmented chaos of the character’s experience, as her ownership of her body appears to be stripped away from her.
Evaristo similarly addresses other challenges faced by Black women in Britain such as racial prejudice. One relationship that is explored within the novel is that of Carole and her mother Bummi. Carole, in trying to blend in at her ‘posh’ university, focuses less on her cultural heritage, and later faces discrimination in her job as a banker. Bummi, who cannot understand why Carole seems intent on rejecting her Nigerian roots, as a result, feels cut off and separated from her daughter, to whom she has always felt close. Through learning about both characters’ backgrounds, we understand why Carole and Bummi react the way they do, and how their experiences have led to these separate approaches to coping with the racism they face in society.
Evaristo's free-flowing speech, lack of punctuation and capitalisation - almost reminiscent at first of Virginia Woolf - constitutes the lack of formal ordering to the text and pages. Each chapter is devoted to one specific character. Evaristo structures the chapters so that, at first, we are introduced to only a perception of the character, only to be invited to explore the character's life and story in detail later on in the book. Through giving us multiple points of view, Evaristo could be warning us to not judge a character purely based on how they are seen by others, as they do not always have the full picture. The reader should take the time to understand a character’s backstory and experiences, and form their own opinions on what the character is really like, before appraising them through another’s eyes.
Evaristo presents each character as expressive and unique, through a vibrant and fluid narration. Evaristo brilliantly adopts the tone and language of each character. For example, using over-the-top, pretentious speech when looking at the fresh-out-of-uni graduate Yazz, and seeming more reserved and quietly intuitive in the chapter focusing on Winsome, a young bride who arrived from Barbados in the 50s who later finds herself unfulfilled, longing for a real relationship. As with any book that features multiple complex and detailed characters, it can become a little confusing closer to the end when they all interlink. My advice to this would be not to get bogged down too much by the many characters and links. Each individual story within the novel has its own significance to wider messages about race, sexuality and living as a Black woman (or non-binary person) in Britain.
As a white person reading this, I felt incredibly moved by the stories of each character. Yet, I became more aware of how much further we - as white people - still have to go in truly understanding what it is like to grow up or have grown up Black in Britain. The immigration stories within this novel were especially touching and seem all the more relevant given the immigration legislation currently being discussed in the Houses of Parliament. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book; a worthy winner of the Booker Prize 2019. You should read this, if not for the beautiful, poetic way it is written but for the perceptive and insightful way it navigates issues such as gender, sexuality and race.
Author: Bernardine Evaristo
Published by: Hamish Hamilton
Harriet Norris is a member of Our Books Now (OSN's Book Club). "I am currently on a gap year volunteering as a teaching assistant at my local primary school. I am intending to study English Literature at university, and my other interests include history, feminism and politics (and also Billy Joel)".
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