There is something very of this moment about Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker-prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other. It makes so many other books seem old-fashioned and out of touch. One wonders how Literature with a capital L so long got away with the narrowness of its representation. The book makes it seem strange that the richness and variety of experience embodied in and by the stories it chooses to tell hasn’t always been recognised as obviously valuable.
The stories told are of twelve people – as the dust jacket puts it – ‘mostly women, mostly black’ for whom Britain has, in one way or another, been a home. They vary hugely and span intergenerational connections and political divides to include the cantankerous 93-year-old Hattie who has spent her entire life on her farmstead near the Scottish border and voted for Brexit, to her great-grandchild Morgan née Megan, a Twitter influencer, whose gender identity Hattie can’t grasp, beyond it’s being somehow “non-binding”.
The book is exceptional in its capacity to extend almost equal empathy to the complex lives of all these characters. Certainly, some are more gripping than others, and what speaks to each reader will probably be related to how much of their own world and values they see represented there. With the enormous variety in characters, it’s clear that there will be political disagreements amongst them. Evaristo is able to confront these conversations not only with sensitivity, but also with a sense of humour – be it when a transsexual woman mansplains the difficulties of living in the patriarchy to someone who’s lived their whole life up to that point as a woman; or when a white working class country bumpkin quotes Roxanne Gay to argue against discrimination hierarchies at the ultra-hip London-raised Yazz, who considers herself the wokest millennial alive.
At the centre of the larger narrative that serves to connect the different life stories to each other is a play put on by Amma, (once-)radical-feminist lesbian thespian. The after-party brings together many of the cast-members readers have got to know throughout the course of the book, so that when we encounter them here, they are nuanced, textured characters. Amma’s story especially questions the compatibility of becoming successful in the ‘establishment’ and staying true to one’s ‘radical’ principles. These conversation are held up for scrutiny, yet while the book pokes fun at the individuals who people this artsy London theatre scene, its critical gaze isn’t quite as critical as it might be of the essential elitism of what is very much a scene.
Formally, Evaristo remains an innovator. She foregoes capitalisation and full stops in Girl, Woman, Other, for a free-flowing effect of run-on sentences. The verse-like quality of her writing gives it a gentle rhythm of its own, while the free indirect style that enters the different chapters lets each of the characters have a measure of their own say in the telling of their stories.
Evaristo’s storytelling is perhaps at its most compelling when she is unstitching the histories of colonialism and migration that brought these woman and their ancestors to Britain. It also addresses the shifting sands and the changing priorities of a migrant like Bummi, from Nigeria, who spent many years working as a cleaner, and her daughter Carole, born and raised in England, now a successful banker in the city. Enormously diverse as the experiences represented evidently are – and the characters are by no means flawless and are shown also to wrong each other – the pull of the book is towards togetherness, and its implicit argument is that more connects than divides us. Not only is it entirely worth reading, it might leave you feeling a touch optimistic.