Girl, Woman, Other
Book: Girl, Woman, Other
Author: Bernardine Evaristo
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
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Review by Joy Francis
Girl, Woman, Other is one hell of a book. This cleverly crafted, energetic and emotionally-textured tome celebrates the often messy lives of 12 unashamedly complex, hilarious and challenging Black British womxn, oscillating between the distant past and contemporary present – without losing its footing.
These black womxn’s tantalising stories have found a history-making home on the prestigious final six list for the Booker Prize 2019 (and Evaristo’s book has since won the prize jointly with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments). Rubbing book spines with authors such as Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, Evaristo is the first black woman to win the prize.
This overdue recognition of black womxn is present in the book. The characters appear in clusters of three under four chapter headings. Their stories bleed into each other’s, largely painful, straddling rape, abandonment, exclusion, domestic violence and infidelity. Filled with struggle, their lives are also laced with friendship, hope, humour and redemption.
The words on the page move between prose and poetry; lower case sentences vie with title capped ones. Full stops have been banished, making the text look rebellious – like many of the womxn themselves.
Rebellion runs through the veins of activist theatremaker friends Amma and Dominque. Founders of the Bush Women Theatre Company, their riotous journey starts in the 80s, all squats, vegetarianism, lesbian love affairs and questionable feminist politics.
Angry at the theatre establishment’s racism, Amma also craves their respect. Dominique, tired of following Amma’s lead, leaves Deptford to forge her own path in the US. Instead of finding herself, she loses herself in a toxic, violent relationship.
Amma’s undergraduate daughter Yazz, full of millennial over-confidence and entitlement, leads a multi-racial squad of young womxn, charmingly called ‘The Unfuckwithables’, continuing her mother’s activist and mouthy legacy.
Secrets hover in the background like an unwanted suitor. Corporate high flyer and Oxford graduate Carole hides her roots by diluting her Nigerian heritage and marrying a white aristocrat, much to the dismay of her hard-working widowed mother Bummi.
Single mother and supermarket supervisor LaTisha, whose fraught relationship with men is shaped by being abandoned by her father, unknowingly shares a heartbreaking secret with former schoolmate Carole. Meanwhile, Megan battles with her parents on her journey to become Morgan and a trans campaigner.
Growing older while defying society’s expectations is explored with great candour. Winsome, married, newly retired and living in the Caribbean, is sexually attracted to her daughter Shirley’s husband, while 93 year old farmer Hattie refuses to slow down. Fiercely independent, she mourns the daughter she had to give away as a young woman.
Evaristo’s writing is crisp, knowing, confident and provocative. You visualise the womxn as you read them. How they dress, speak and move – even how they feel. Winsome’s illicit desire drips off the page. Teacher Shirley’s distaste of her students is pungent.
The book also evokes unexpected nostalgia. It’ll be hard not to find a character who doesn’t resonate with you as a black womxn – whatever your age. Like a head-scratching mystery, you may find yourself moving between chapters to double check connections between the characters, and to question your first impressions of them.
Double lives are lived. Secrets are hidden deep. Desires are unleashed and suppressed. I laughed. I sighed. I clenched my teeth in frustration. I applauded some womxn and accepted that others wouldn’t make my inner circle. Having so many representations of Black British womxnhood at my fingertips feels liberating.
Girl, Woman, Other is an important book. It’s part of a growing black literary canon representing an intergenerational wave of unapologetic British womxn of colour, navigating a widening sea of literature with confidence, style and visibility.
A book to be read, re-read and savoured.