Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

 This book was the 2019 Booker winner and also came highly recommended. I was skeptical at first, because it took me a while to get into it, but I ended up enjoying it - with some qualifications.

First, it takes some time to get used to the style. It is written almost as a stream of consciousness - with irregular grammar and punctuation. Once I got into it I found the style actually made it easy to read - almost like following a live conversation. It flowed very naturally.

There were also a lot of characters - and at first it seemed more like a collection of short stories as it took time for the interrelationships to be revealed. I found it interesting to see how all the women connected to each other, but unfortunately there were so many characters that by the time some of the later ones revealed their connections to an earlier character I couldn't really remember the back story of the earlier character. And remembering the back story would probably have enriched my appreciation of the connections between the characters. I read this in an e-version and it may have helped to read a hard copy as it's always easier to refer back.

The basic premise of the book is to examine the varying lives of black women, girls (and one non-binary "other") in England. Their ancestry is varied - different African and Caribbean countries - some are first generation, others third or fourth. While men wander in and out of most of the women's lives, for better or for worse, the men are really peripheral characters.

Each of the chapters develops the life of the one character in its title (and their immediate friends and family). Most of the stories begins in the present and move back into the character's past. Some of the characters are more historical so there is no present day action though they are connected to present day characters.

Here are some of the key characters - at least the ones I can remember:

Amma is a lesbian playwright and director who has finally hit the big time with a show at the National Theatre. In some ways I guess you could call her the main character as much of the present day narrative revolves around her opening night and the after-party. Most of the other characters have found their way to the production for one reason or another.

Her daughter, Yazz is a college student. The second chapter explores her life and the lives of several of her friends. We also learn about her father - a gay friend of her mother's who is now a successful and famous lecturer.

The third chapter is about Amma's friend Dominique who has emigrated to the US - following another woman into a terrible relationship but surviving that and staying in the US.

Other characters are Amma's childhood friend, Shirley, who has become a jaded schoolteacher and is derided as boring by Amma's more artsy friends. 

Shirley's former student, Carole, who following a traumatic experience at age 13 is mentored by Shirley, eventually attending Oxford and becoming a successful banker married to a successful white man. Years later Shirley is still resentful that Carole never thanked her.

Carole's mother, Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant has set up her own cleaning business and gets a job cleaning for Shirley's twice married, vaguely racist colleague, Penelope. However, when we get to Penelope's story we learn her prickliness is covering up from immense hurt in her childhood.

Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer - and we learn of her childhood where her mother tried to force her into an uncomfortable feminine mold and of her strong relationship with her great-grandmother, Hattie, who accepts her (and her transgendered partner) and welcomes their help on the family farm which she is determined to keep in the family.  Hattie's past was also full of childhood trauma, a difficult marriage and several miscarriages and infant deaths.

One of the chapters entirely based in the past revolves around Hattie's mother Grace, who never knew her Abyssinian father and was haunted by that throughout her life prompting Hattie to attempt to find out about him.

Despite the reservations I referred to above, the book does a tremendous job of examining the lives of women faced with racial, class and gender discrimination. And whatever the connection between the women, or their differences, what they all show is tremendous strength of character and determination to live the lives that they want to live.

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