Review by Liz Dexter, 5 November 2019
Amma is a playwright and director who’s moved from the fringes to the mainstream (or has it moved to her?). Yazz is a millennial student, sure of herself and never wrong, who categorises her godparents according to what accompanies their birthday cards. Dominique made a mistake and ended up in another country. Carole had to make a choice between cultures; LaTisha has a different journey but is it better or worse? Bummi sticks with her own but has to find new ways of doing business. Hattie is very old but still wants to know. Megan/Morgan has gone a long way to finding their real self. Grace mourns what is lost. Shirley picks out the best to nurture, Winsome has a secret and Penelope doesn’t know. What do these women have in common? They’re the characters in this marvellous novel, so well-deserving of winning the Booker in my eyes. Some are linked more than others, and all intersect and cross paths in the way that you do in London especially.
So, we meet twelve women, loosely grouped into four sets of three who are related in some way, but throughout the book there are meetings or passings, and Chapter Five, “The After-party” and the Epilogue tie more strings together. It’s so beautifully done, and while I don’t want to give away any plot points that aren’t immediately discernible, I will share that at one point in my reading I gasped out loud and shouted, “Well played, Bernadine Evaristo, well played!” A note here about the “novel in verse” tag. This is what I’d read about it, and while the content appealed massively, the poetry aspect didn’t. Spoiler alert: it’s not in poetry. It’s written in an experimental form without much punctuation, sentences starting on new lines almost arbitrarily, but also beautifully. I coped: you will cope.
The wonderful thing about this book is the insights into black British history it gives us – insights which white cisgender straight women like me can appreciate, insights in which black and othered women can surely see themselves reflected – a rare thing the more intersectional you get. I love the way it starts off tight inside London in one level of a cultured milieu and then spreads tentacles out far away, to America, and, more fascinating to me, the north of England, and a part-Ethiopian farmer in her 90s.
This book covers, variously and not exhaustively, straight and gay relationships, women and non-gender-binary people, race, class, pretension, domestic violence within same-sex relationships, parents, children, teachers, students, adoption, identity, education, conforming, rebelling, melding with the mainstream, having an embarrassing mum and dad, finding your feet at university, intersectionality, veiling, contraception, work, rape. But you know what it’s not: po-faced about Issues. In fact, the other thing I love about the book is its puncturing of bubbles of self-importance. This is done throughout the book, by characters to each other. Evaristo’s very much into showing the characters showing each other and themselves up rather than pointing it out for us, and it’s done very effectively and – crucially – amusingly. Yazz, the daughter of the once sidelined, now mainstream playwright and director Amma, has her own pretensions shown up by her university mates, for example. Nzinga the activist who comes into Dominique and Amma’s lives is the most skewered, perhaps, with her exhortations to never wear black socks “(why would you step on your own people?)” or pants, which has Amma robustly turning on her. Similarly, Megan/Morgan learns a lot about gender and sex from Bibi but catches her out correcting them before they’ve learned everything and turns that mirror to face her.
I loved all the stories, but particularly those of Bummi, LaTisha, Megan/Morgan and Hattie. Bummi is a marvellous character, caught between her own Nigerian heritage and her daughter Carole’s need to cast off all her culture, or so it seems. She’s irresistible:
what is more, if you address me as Mother ever again I will beat you until you are dripping wet with blood and then I will hang you upside down over the balcony with the washing to dry
I be your mama
now and forever
never forget that, abi?
I learned a lot from this book. How there could come to be a part-Ethiopian Geordie of the generation above mine. How you can move from the sidelines to the mainstream but is it you or the mainstream that’s moved? How different families can look and behave. How business has to be done when there aren’t traditional ways to get funding or get ahead. How a transwoman can know she’s a woman even when “reject[ing] conformist gender bullshit as above, I still feel female, I’ve known it since like forever, for me it’s not about wanting to play with dolls, it goes much deeper than that”. That’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen on how a cultural production like gender interplays with deeper identities of biological sex. From these very modern discussions we can move in an instant to banker Carole, not sure what kind of play she’s going to see:
the thought crossed her mind it might be the black lesbian sisterhood nod, she scrutinized them more closely, guessed many of them could be lesbians, even the ones wearing head-ties were wearing very practical shoes
There’s the othering, but there’s also a laugh in there. and that’s typical of this highly readable novel.
So from traditional storytelling of sometimes age-old stories to a very high standard with twists and turns that are expertly done to discussion of the very cutting edge – the bleeding edge – of gender politics, this book gives a snapshot of modern black women in all their guises, teachers to students, farmers to bankers, liberal arts-makers and transgressors to conservatives and Leave voters.
There are tantalising glimpses of the women Evaristo could have written about: transgender Bibi, Linda the film and TV props business owner. I’ve read that she considered including even more – perhaps a thousand – women, and I’d read that book, too.
Liz Dexter is a cisgender white woman of West Country and a teeny bit of Spanish descent who uses the pronouns she/her and says this because it’s important that not just “othered” people have to. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, 2019.) 978-0241364901, 452 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (Free UK P&P)