If this book sounds familiar, it may be because it was recently awarded the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction. (Technically, it was jointly awarded to Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments but I was completely unimpressed by that move so the less said on it the better).
I have, admittedly, only read one other shortlisted book (Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World) but, for reasons I’m about to go into, I would’ve been more than a little disappointed if this book hadn’t taken the prize.
There is much that makes Girl, Woman, Other not only prize-worthy, but also just worth reading, starting with the fact that it is a masterclass in how to relay every day experiences in a way that is far from ordinary.
The multi-generational stories of 11 women and 1 non-binary person are seamlessly interwoven in a way that never feels disjointed and comes full circle without missing a beat.
Evaristo chronicles the lives of mostly Black women, ranging in age from 19-90+, spanning several decades and reflecting a range of cultural and geographical backgrounds, as well as various sexualities and occupations. These include Amma, a playwright/ theatre director, Hattie, a 90+ year-old farmer, LaTisha, a supermarket employee, Yazz, a student and Shirley, a teacher. It may sound like a lot to contend with but it doesn’t read that way; Evaristo has managed to portray distinct personalities and experiences, with every story as unique as you’d hope they’d be.
Reading this book, it’s easy to feel as though you’re peering into lives of these women, a fly on the wall but even more intimate.
As a reader, you are not only given access to their lived experiences, you’re also privy to their innermost thoughts – the secrets they’re keeping, their dreams, aspirations, fears and disappointments. The result is that the stories were not only believable but they felt honest, even when the characters themselves were anything but.
Themes of race, sexuality, gender and class run throughout the book, however, the way these themes emerge differs with each story, often doing so in ways that are quite unexpected. On more than one occasion I thought I’d got a grasp on a character only for them to go and do something I just hadn’t seen coming.
As for the writing itself, Evaristo’s style is clearly hers; it is considered but feels effortless- it is poetry and it is prose. Punctuation as we know it is all but entirely abandoned: absent speech-marks, few full stops but a rhythm that allows the words to run so smoothly they practically fall from the tongue.
With a writing career spanning 40 years Evaristo is clearly a seasoned player in this game and, whilst the Booker Prize win may have drawn more attention to her work, she has honed her craft and it shows.