author Bernardine Evaristo

Booker 2019: Girl, Woman, Other 

11th September 2019

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Hamish Hamilton

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Girl, Woman, Other is Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth novel: a big, sprawling, ambitious piece of work, that takes the lives of twelve people – mostly women, mostly black, but of different age, class, heritage and race – and explores their experiences of life (mostly in Britain; indeed, mostly in London) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There’s no plot, as such, although a unifying device is the opening night of a new production at the National Theatre, written by playwright Amma, which brings several of the characters together, and around which the others more distantly orbit.

The book is sectioned into four main chapters, each focusing on a group of interconnected lives – usually a mother, a daughter and a key friend or family member, each of whom gets a subdivision headed up with their own name. Above and beyond the intimacy of these close connections, many of the lives touch many of the others at least tangentially. The structure is tight – Evaristo’s planning must have been meticulous – but the reading experience is much looser, and you do need to keep your wits about you to remember who’s connected to whom in this literary soap opera. Our first character is Amma, mother of Yazz and best friend of Shirley… who taught Carole… whose mother, Bummi, works as a cleaner for Shirley’s colleague Penelope…. You could almost read these stories in any order, however, for, as much as they interlock, they also stand independently as rich vignettes of individual experience.

The strength is in the building up, the offsetting of each narrative against the others. These lives are varied and compelling, full of struggle, underpinned by hope. They are all, in their own way, survivors.

Evaristo writes with energy. Here, without full stops at the end of paragraphs or capital letters at the start of them, her style has a natural fluidity – ideas and experiences falling over each other to be told. The text is broken up in a way that calls to mind a prose poem; it has a declamatory feel that is appealing but also alienating (it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm without attending to the content). There’s a tendency to tell, not show, but there is so much of interest packed in that you have to forgive Evaristo for this.

As a portrait of contemporary Britain, and how we got here, it’s beguiling, shocking, fascinating. Gender, race, privilege and identity are key themes, but, while ticking lots of boxes, Evaristo also manages to create something as vibrant as it is worthy, as funny as it is sad, as impressive as it is readable.

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