Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
I have pretty strict rules about the fact that I usually try and read the 4 major prizewinners of my reading languages (the Pulitzer, the Man Booker, the Goncourt and the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie française – do not get me started on the split 2019 Booker) and I’m really glad I picked up Girl, Woman, Other.
The overarching plot is that of twelve loosely interconnected women telling their stories, and sharing their versions of looking at and interacting with the world while being black females or transgender women. It’s not a style of prose I usually go in for – I’m not a fan of the lack-of-punctuation-free-flowing-text-without-clear-textual-structure thing – but in the case of this book, since it’s more of an observational book than a plot-book, I think it works really well.
Plus, it helps that Evaristo can really, really write. Each chapter had its own distinctive, recognizable voice that melded and blended into the overarching narrative seamlessly, and all the characters – even the incidental ones – stood out in sharp, clear definition; you never forget one character from one chapter to the next. I also really liked the way Evaristo kept them loosely connected without ever making the way they interlink explicit; it was always a fun little discovery when I found out how the character in Chapter Four was related to the one in Chapter One, and so on and so forth. It’s also quite witty and bright and a bit fizzy – the moments where I laughed out loud on the train were well balanced with the moments where I felt the rage boiling in the pit of my stomach at the treatment of some of the characters by the racists/sexists/homophobes in the book. And yet, and yet, Evaristo never loses the compassion with which she writes all of her primary characters, so that even when I fundamentally disagreed with where the character was coming from, or her actions (looking at you, Shirley King) I never once felt like I was reading a villain, or interacting with someone I wouldn’t meet in real life. The observations, too, were richly nuanced yet razor-sharp - she pulls no punches while she's writing, and as much as I hate defining any book as 'important', I think this one most definitely is primarily on the strength and the urgency of the social commentary that's being made.
That was another strength of Evaristo’s writing – all of her women are incredibly real. They carried so many different emotions in conjunction, and oftentimes that were in outright conflict, without ever tripping into one-dimension, or tropeisms. The fact that she wrote her women to be both angry and compassionate, brave and shy, garrulous yet generous – the width, depth and breadth of the female experience sometimes can really be best treated by female authors.
And yet I also didn’t get the impression, while reading this, that Evaristo was attempting to be universal. I think she was writing the stories and the narratives of these twelve women, not all black British women. Which, of course, makes sense – you would never expect a white author or a male author to be universal about his particular experience, and yet we, as a culture-consuming society, force any female or BAME author into the trap of representing a whole background of people that do not actually entirely represent each other. Evaristo did a good job of putting her frustration with that blanket task of universality into the mouths of her characters without ever tipping into being preachy, or taking you out of the story.
And, even though there wasn’t any plot per se, I found the book absolutely gripping. I tore through the 453 pages of this book like they were barely there (and maybe the looser writing style helped with that), because I absolutely adored watching the women in the chapters grow and age and the wit, wisdom and energy Evaristo gave each and every one of them throughout their life stories. Every single emotional moment landed precisely as the author intended them to, and there were no false notes anywhere in the pacing or the plotting. The way she draws all the narrative threads together in the last two chapters, bringing things together so neatly yet beautifully – it was a masterpiece of foreshadowing, clever writing and intelligent characterization.
Globally, there was nothing I didn’t like about this book – and it’s very rare for me to say that. Definitely read it, and then please do tell me what you thought of it!