Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo (Published by Hamish Hamilton in 2019)

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

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  2. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  3. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  4. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  5. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  6. 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

25 thoughts on “Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

  1. so glad you enjoyed this so much!! ☺ i tried to read Girl, Woman, Other last year but DNFd it, but i definitely wanna revisit it this year, especially because so many people i know have loved it

  2. Great review! I am saving Girl, Woman, Other as my last read because I want to end the list on a high note, and it’s great to see that you liked it so much! Also, I am currently reading The Dutch House and that comment about it made me laugh (I can already see the book never delivering on character development).

    1. Thank you! Ah, now I wish I’d done that too—there are still books on my list that look good but I don’t think they’re as strong as GWO. Lol I couldn’t resist throwing shade, I was just so disappointed by it! I hope you’ll have better luck with it than me. 🙂

  3. violetdaniels97

    Have been wondering about whether I should read this for a while. This review has convinced me to give it a go! Brilliantly written 🙂

    1. Thank you, and glad I could convince you to give it a shot! It was definitely a breath of fresh air in terms of style, and worth reading for that alone. I’d love to hear what you think if you ever do pick it up. 🙂

  4. Great review! I also feel that Girl, Woman, Other seems like the strongest contender for the WP (it is at the top of my list, too). And I agree with you that Evaristo pulled off so many incredible feats with this book! Prior to reading this book, I would make excuses for other books’ weaknesses, using the rationale that one book can’t possibly pull off everything. But Girl, Woman, Other does SO much and does it all quite well, as you said! Glad you enjoyed this!

    1. Thank you, and I’m glad we agree! I know, GWO seemed like it was taking a lot of risks, and I was skeptical at first but as you said, Evaristo pulls it off so well—and it almost feels effortless, like she isn’t even trying hard to break all those conventions. Definitely rooting for this one!

  5. You had me giggling at “being the heathen that I am” for it’s bluntness! 🙂

    I read a lot of experimental fiction in my MFA program, so when I open a book I’m wondering what it will look like inside! What made you decide not to read Girl? I know other bloggers have given it terrible reviews, and it doesn’t sound like much more than a newspaper article fluffed out into book form.

    1. Yes, well, I’ve never pretended to be anything other than a reader with simple tastes. 🤣 I usually like plot and straightforward storytelling, and normally wouldn’t touch experimental fiction with a ten-foot pole, but after going over the first few pages I relaxed into it. It didn’t feel like it was trying to be experimental or that it was trying to be smarter than the reader, which I appreciated.

      I can see why other bloggers would say that, but I’d say that Evaristo explores the political stances (or lack thereof) of her characters with far more nuance than an article can. Maybe a better way to put it is that most of her characters are “woke” on paper, but Evaristo also gently makes fun of them for their “wokeness”. For example, Amma used to be a radical black lesbian who heckled the mainstream plays of her day, so having her play staged at the National Theatre feels very conflicting for her—she wants to remain firm in her politics but she also yearns for the acclaim. There is another character, a black lesbian feminist, who uses the logic of feminism to control and manipulate her lover. So I feel that Evaristo captures this gap between ideology or politics and one’s actions in one’s personal life very well. In contrast, the writers of articles might be more inclined to push a certain agenda rather than confess that they haven’t always been perfectly living up to their ideals—especially if they built their “brand” online as, for example, a “black lesbian activist.” While I certainly admire them for pushing for structural change as a collective, there could be a corresponding tendency to adhere so closely to such political identities that there’s less room to pay attention to ambiguity and contradiction in one’s personal life, which Evaristo really hones in on here.

      Sorry, that was quite a long response, but I hope I answered your question! Your comment definitely made me think too, so thank you for that. 🙂

      1. Your comment was wonderful and really made me want to look into Girl, Woman, Other now. However, my comment was about the book entitled just Girl, by Edna O’Brien. You wrote, “Will not read; no rating.” Girl is the about which other bloggers have said it should have just been an article, not a whole book.

      2. Oof, sorry! 😂 I’ve read that comment about Girl too, and it suspiciously sounds a bit like the American Dirt controversy, where someone who’s not a cultural insider with good intentions tries to depict the experience of another. So, no for me.

  6. Nope, you are not the last person – I haven’t read it either! But I definitely mean to. Glad to hear that you quickly got used to the “free verse” writing style, I did wonder about that. Great review, now I want to read it even more!

    1. Whew, glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t read it immediately after it won the prize! I’m glad I quickly got into it too, and that’s saying something for someone who usually distrusts experimental prose. I look forward to your thoughts on it when you do get to read it!

  7. I laughed at “I’d thought that there was a problem with my copy when I first saw this, being the heathen that I am”. Relatable, though, I read an eARC for this and thought it was an early-copy-not-being-edited problem. Oops.

    Great review! I totally agree it’s one of the strongest contenders. It had better be on the shortlist, OR ELSE.

  8. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, it’s my favorite for the Women’s Prize win so far as well. 🙂 I also really liked the writing style once I got used to it, and loved how much variance and depth Evaristo brought to each of the characters. I can say it’s much better done than The Testaments! And The Dutch House… I finished that one earlier this week and ended up agreeing with you entirely, even though I’d started out by liking the book in the first half.

    1. Ah, I’m glad someone can attest to that! I have read other comments on how unnecessary The Testaments was. Yes, the first part was definitely better than the rest. I think it fell apart for me after they got thrown out. Looking forward to your thoughts on it. 🙂

  9. Florence @ Miscellany Pages

    Ooh, I plan to read Girl, Woman, Other next and now I’m looking forward to it even more! Thank you for this insightful review 📚❤️ X x x

  10. I enjoyed reading your review 💃

    I also have a review of this book up on my blog by a guest blogger.
    I’m glad she shares some of your views
    I’m yet to read it myself

    Great post 😊

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