My Rating: ★★★★☆
I must be the last person to read this since it (joint-)won the Booker Prize, but now that I have, I finally get what the fuss is all about. I haven’t read Atwood’s The Testaments (just The Handmaid’s Tale), but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it can’t possibly be as good as Girl, Woman, Other. This is just so so SO good. I’d say that it’s probably the strongest contender for the Women’s Prize this year.
I think the thing that makes Girl, Woman, Other stand out from the five books I’ve read so far is that in this work, Evaristo makes a series of bold creative choices that are tricky to pull off on their own, let alone together—but she does pull it off, and she pulls it off well. The first creative choice is a stylistic one: Evaristo uses a form that looks like a free-verse prose-poem, and she forgoes proper punctuation and capitalization to make it feel like entire sections are being recited in one breath. I’d thought that there was a problem with my copy when I first saw this, being the heathen that I am, but as I read on the execution began to feel entirely natural. The first chapter, especially, was a revelation. I felt like parts of my brain were reorganizing around this new form and thinking, Yes, this is how Littrature is done. I think this form gave the ‘ordinary’ lives of Evaristo’s characters the feel of an epic.
Another creative choice that she makes is that Girl, Woman, Other, which I think is a consequence of this form, is told in a series of loosely-connected short stories. There are 12 stories in all, each focusing on a snapshot of the life of a single woman, typically black and British. These are then broken up into four chapters featuring a triptych of women in each chapter. In each woman’s story, Evaristo simultaneously unspools the narrative of her life and populates it with characters that the readers will encounter later on. This setup could become unwieldy, but surprisingly enough I didn’t find it hard to follow the thread of each character arc.
Which brings me to the characters: Evaristo creates more nuanced characters in the space of a few pages than some authors can in an entire book (ahem, The Dutch House). We meet Amma, a black lesbian playwright in her fifties who’s finally seeing her plays accepted by the mainstream; Carole, a poor but bright girl who survived a gang rape, got into Oxford, and became a high-flying executive in finance; Megan/Morgan, a young non-binary transperson ostracized from their family but who later becomes an influencer and spokesperson for the trans community; Hattie, a woman in her nineties who’s still tough as nails and runs her own farm… and so on. The characters are widely different from each other, but what unites them all is that at crucial turning points in their lives, they stopped being victims of their circumstances and instead chose to take control of their futures. Each story then ends on a note of triumph in the face of insurmountable odds and systematic, structural discrimination. I think this is an affirmation of the essence of feminism: It’s not just about “lobbing hand grenades” at the patriarchy; it’s also about women making choices in their lives that serve their own well-being and happiness.
All that being said, my rating of 4 stars is really more reflective of my personal preferences than the brilliance of this work. For one, I prefer burrowing deep into the minds of a few characters rather than dipping in and out of a lot of different minds, and since Girl, Woman, Other is the latter, it struggled to hold my attention for the entirety of the book. Plus, as many others have said, there were character studies that were more memorable than others, with the best bits in the first half and the weaker ones towards the end.
But those are minor quibbles. Overall, I found Girl, Woman, Other to be an expansive and hopeful novel about the different ways that “black British women can be”, as Evaristo said, and how they survive and thrive in a society that others them on account of their gender, race, and sexuality. This work is both stylistically brilliant and politically relevant, and I’m really rooting for this to win the Women’s Prize this year.
On a final note, I find that these lines from the novel about the playwright Amma are prescient of Evaristo’s current fame:
Amma then spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her
until the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it
I too feel hopeful about Evaristo joining the mainstream—the praise she’s receiving from it is definitely well-deserved.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 24-28, 2020