Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

For the sisters & the sistas & the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn & our brethren & our bredrin & our brothers & our bruvs & our men & our mandem & the LGBTQI+ members of the human family

I love this opening dedication to Girl, Woman, Other: it is inclusive, diverse, playful and joyful.

And those are the adjectives that describe the whole of the novel… if novel is even the right word. This book is freed from the rigidity of sentence forms, full stops, capital letters and that nineteenth century patriarchal grammar to find the fluidity of natural speech and poetry with paragraphs (stanzas?) like this where Carole, the high flying city banker…

loves dancing like a warrior queen to frenzied beats of the war-painted shamanistic godfather, Fela Kuti
loves the way he rips apart her emotions with his polyrhythmic percussions and unashamedly flatulent horns blasting away all pretence at nicety-niceness with his anti-corruption-lyrical-political broadsides
and the futuristic psychedelics of Parliament Funkadelic
who teleport their freakilicious mothership logic into her brain, activating its neglected right side with their crazed imagination
and outrageously costumed performances she loves to watch on YouTube
while dancing
for herself
out of it
out of her head
out of her body
feeling it
freeing it
nobody watching
nobody judging
moving on to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul
get on up, Carole, get on up
which is exactly what she’s doing as she disappears between the glass revolving doors of the tall office building

In the novel, Evaristo charts the lives of twelve women, mainly black and British – whether by birth or immigration – and mainly non-heterosexual, connected intimately or tangentially to each other and to the play at the epicentre of the novel, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, written and directed by our first narrative point of view, Amma Bonsu, “the legendary black dyke theatre director”. The first part focuses on Amma, her friend Dominique and Amma’s daughter, Yazz; the second part focuses on Carole, her mother Bummi and Carole’s school friend, LaTisha; the third part revolves around Shirley, her mother Bummi and Shirley’s colleague Penelope; finally, we meet trans Megan / Morgan, their great-grandmother Hattie, and Hattie’s mother Grace who

“came into this world courtesy of a seaman from Abyssinia called Wolde, a young fireman / who stoked coal into the boilers in the holds of merchant ships / the hardest, filthiest, sweatiest job on board / Wolde / who sailed into South Shields in 1895 and left a few days later leaving behind the beginnings of Grace hidden inside her Ma / who’d just turned sixteen”

A multi-generational sweep from 1895 to 2019, 124 years of the experiences of black women in Britain – a black history which feel horribly whitewashed. Some people might respond, “What? There were black people in Yorkshire in the Victorian period? Not in the freak show?” It is a community, an history, a culture that deserves the spotlight to be cast on it.

Amma is the lynchpin: it is her play and her friendships and her fierce socialist politics and her family and her lesbianism and her eneergy around which the others revolve, knowingly or unknowingly. And there is perhaps something of the autobiographical in her? Amma and Dominique had founded Bush Women Theatre Company in the past, and Evaristo did the same, and as Evaristo herself has acknowledged

I used to heckle; Amma heckles. And Amma is lesbian. And I was lesbian in the 80s.

Oh! there is just so much to praise in the novel! It is almost impossible in one review to pull out all the things I loved!

The notion of family is at the heart of the novel and it is such a beautiful, wide and inclusive sense of what a family means. There are conventional families, single parent families, and also families like Amma and Roland and Yazz, where a gay man and a gay woman who are friends but not in a relationship can have a child. There are adoptive and genetic families, the wealth of godparents that Yazz revels in, adopted and birth family, found families… And the warmth and strength derived from family is so strong. The epilogue, oh! the epilogue, my poor happy heart!

This is not to say that there are no horrific experiences that the women in Girl, Woman, Other face. The novel does not shy away from the struggles and horrors that shadow the strength of her characters: violence, domestic abuse at the hands of both men and women, loss, miscarriage, rape, betrayal, mental health. These are all very real traumas and reveal the awful trials that being black or female or immigrant or non-cis or lesbian can create in a white patriarchal society and it makes the novel feel (tragically) oh so relevant to today! Carole’s experiences are truly awful and devastating but Evaristo’s prose is elegant enough and potent enough to be all the more terrible whilst never becoming graphic.

The women who star in the novel are all survivors, however, and Evaristo manages that difficult tightrope between identifying them as victims or dismissing the horrors of the experiences. Survivors to me feels like the right word: these women lived through and bear the scars of their experiences, living with the trauma but not identified by it.

The novel does raise very pertinent and relevant questions about feminism –

“feminism is so herd-like, Yazz told her, to be honest, even being a woman is passé these days, we had a non-binary activist at uni called Morgan Malenga who opened my eyes, I reckon we’re all going to be non-binary in the future, neither male nor female, which are gendered performances anyway, which means your women’s politics, Mumsy, will become redundant, and by the way, I’m humanitarian, which is on a much higher plane than feminism / do you even know what that is?” –

and about non-binary gender identity and sexuality…. In the hands of a lesser writer, these episodes could feel ‘preachy’ and intrusive; here, they fit perfectly into the voices of the characters who utter them, naturally into the narrative.

And the characters don’t always agree with each other or share a single world view – Dominique bans trans women from her women’s festival because “a man raised as a man might not feel like one but he’s been treated as one by the world, so how can he be exactly the same as us?” – their voices and opinions are varied and individual and all valid and empathetic, supporting each other.

In terms of ratings, I cannot think of any reason to knock any stars off any aspect of it…

RATINGS:

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Date:  2nd May 2019

Available: Amazon, Hamish Hamilton

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