Girl, Woman, Other review: Bernardine Evaristo's novel is a boisterous, life-affirming storytelling experiment

Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.

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In a scene from Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize 2019 shortlisted novel Girl, Woman, Other, a character — Winsome — describes a title being discussed by her book club: The Lonely Londoners by a Trini author, Selvon, is about "young Caribbean men in England who get up to mischief and treat women badly, women who don't even get a chance to speak in the book".

Girl, Woman, Other is not such a book. Reflecting Evaristo's endeavour to "bring presence into absence", it foregrounds voices that have typically been marginalised or othered. Intersectionality isn't just a catchphrase here, it's the very foundation of the story Evaristo tells.

The story — actually Girl, Woman, Other is more a collection of 12 short stories — follows the lives of 12 characters, all of them connected in varying degrees. Each of these characters is the narrator of her/their own journey, but we also get to see them through the eyes of the others, when it's their turn to relate their tales. It's an interesting exercise — seeing an individual through their own perspective and that of others.

Girl, Woman, Other begins with Amma — a queer, black, bohemian theatre director, poised (after years of being considered too radical for the establishment) on the cusp of 'mainstream' success. Her best friend Dominique, with whom Amma runs a theatre group for years until the former decamps to America to be with her new — and controlling — girlfriend, takes up the narrator's role next, as does Amma's 19-year-old daughter Tazz. Tazz introduces us to her best friends at university, collectively called the 'Unfuckwithables'.

 Girl, Woman, Other review: Bernardine Evaristos novel is a boisterous, life-affirming storytelling experiment

Reviewers have called Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other a novel "for our times" and indeed it is

We then hear from British-Nigerian Carole, a successful banker who's been — in her mother Bummi's opinion — even more successful in erasing most traces of her heritage. Bummi herself steps into the spotlight after Carole; telling us of her childhood in Nigeria, her marriage and subsequent move to England, where she — a Mathematics graduate — works as a cleaner to put her daughter through school.

Carole's onetime friend LaTisha (working her way up the retail business ladder and a mother of three by the age of 21), their school teacher Shirley (who is also Amma's friend), and Shirley's mother Winsome come up next, followed by Megan/Morgan, their great-grandmother Hattie, Hattie's dead mother Grace, and Penelope (Shirley's colleague). Their stories sprout organically, each an offshoot of the other, until the narrative arrives in an unhurried manner to our initial point of departure — the premiere of Amma's play, where many of these characters are in attendance.

Girl, Woman, Other has a strong sense of the theatrical (by which I do not mean dramatic, but having qualities pertaining to theatre), and not only because of this play within the story arc. These characters — be it Amma or Tazz or Bummi or Hattie — each have a distinct voice; reading some of their stories is almost like watching a one-woman act on stage, their life histories delivered as a monologue to the audience. Through most of the book, and with the most engaging characters, this works well. In some rare instances, however, this same device can make dialogue between characters (especially when articulating ideology) seem performative rather than conversational.

Evaristo has said that her theatre writing and poetry background have seeped into her novel, and Girl, Woman, Other is written in a style that she calls 'fusion fiction': free-flowing, unpunctuated, with a cadence that — in the best portions — approaches lyricism. Used so infrequently through the 300 or so pages, the period at the very end of her book has a finality that is otherwise stripped away from the full-stop, inured as we are to its everyday use.

Her great achievement with this book (quite apart from amplifying voices that would far too easily remain unheard) is in underscoring ideas we must all grapple with today. While Margaret Atwood's The Testaments (also on the Booker shortlist this year) exposes the mechanisms of patriarchy, and how women can be complicit in oppression too, Evaristo's is the more sophisticated critique. When Tazz asks Courtney, who is white, to 'check her privilege', Courtney points out that Tazz — the London-born and bred daughter of a well-to-do gay academic dad and celebrated queer theatre director mum — has probably always been better off than her, a farmgirl from a rural community where women marry and/or work in a factory by 16/17. She quotes Roxane Gay's thoughts on "not playing the Privilege or Oppression Olympics" to a stunned Tazz, who is left wordless for once. Or take the case of Dominique, who finds out that being a queer, black feminist activist doesn't mean she can't be called out for not being inclusive enough of transwomen. Or Penelope, who has fought to be heard among her male colleagues, but shuts down a younger teacher — Shirley — who tries to speak up at a staff meeting. Sexual violence is present in the lives of some of these women, but men aren't the only aggressors: Dominique — fierce, strong Dominique — remains in an extremely abusive relationship with her girlfriend for three years.

A character in Girl, Woman, Other wonders at a certain point if her achievements cannot be hers alone, or if they must perforce represent her people/community. It brings to mind a thinkpiece about the Joy Luck Club, and how Amy Tan's novel (later made into a fim) — which had Asian-American women as its protagonists — was derided because many Asian-American readers felt it didn't encapsulate all their experiences; the writer wondered if Tan's story really needed to. If Evaristo felt any such compulsions, it isn't evident for the most part — except during Megan/Morgan's narrative, which feels more like an attempt to educate readers about gender constructs than a "story", and like a checking of the gender diversity box.

Reviewers have called Girl, Woman, Other a novel "for our times" and indeed it is. Apart from the ideas it espouses though, this is also a compellingly told tale. Even as she deftly weaves in the abstract with the everyday, creating a world of warmth and acceptance, Evaristo transports you into the lives of these characters, until their personalities seem to be living and breathing and talking and arguing and smoking and eating and drinking and laughing in the same room as you.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2019 09:24:05 IST