'Girl, Woman, Other' by Bernardine Evaristo
'the thing is, she said, while troublemaking on the periphery's all well and good, we also have to make a difference inside the mainstream'—Review #141
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ is a novel without capital letters to start sentences and no periods to end them. There are no quotes to indicate when someone is speaking. Sentence fragments, even single words, are sometimes stacked
and you know what? Although it takes some getting used to, it works. In fact, it’s brilliant. At first, I thought it was a gimmick. But I realized that Bernardine Evaristo’s style choice might be meant to demonstrate how many things we accept as society’s rules are arbitrary. Meaning it’s not a written commandment of the universe that sentences must begin with a capital letter and end with a period, or that words must form neat sentences to be grouped into paragraphs. We made that up to make sense of this chaotic world and to facilitate communication. In a few cases, like syntax and grammar, imposing order was a good thing. In broader cases, like the gender bias, racial hegemony and class systems we see the characters grapple with in this book, it was bad. Understanding that these norms are human creations is a step toward tearing them down and replacing them with others that are more inclusive. Evaristo is also making a point about time. Removal of beginnings and endings forces the reader to see her characters’ experiences of racism, class prejudice and homophobia less as things on a historical timeline and more as forces working in a constant present. Nietzsche might call this eternal recurrence of the same. Rust Cole would say:
This is a very long way to get to my point which is that Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning novel is a marvel of creativity, humanity and beauty. Here’s the cover:
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‘Girl, Woman, Other’ obviously inspired my inner armchair philosopher, and I love to geek out on how authors play with narrative structure. But I also love how the book inserted me into lives of characters who compose what the cover blurb describes as a ‘symphony of black womanhood’ that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. The novel is primarily set in the U.K., and it is divided into chapters and sections that include 12 characters. They all have a six-degrees-of-separation connection to Amma, whose section starts the book. She’s a lesbian playwright whose show at the National theater in London is about to open. We next meet Amma’s headstrong teenage daughter, Yazz. The third section of the first chapter is about Amma’s theater colleague Dominique, who gets sucked into an abusive cult-like relationship with another woman. Subsequent sections introduce Amma’s best childhood friend, Shirley, who’s a teacher (and a closet homophobe); one of Shirley’s former students Carole (a bank executive hiding a secret trauma); Carole’s mother, Bummi (a Nigerian immigrant who escaped harrowing circumstances to establish her own cleaning business); and others. There’s not a lot of plot here, though the book does build toward a satisfying and emotional climax. The point, though, is to get inside the heads of the characters, learn their experiences, their secrets and their motivations, and connect to them. Because:
The section I learned the most from was about Megan/Morgan. Megan is a girl struggling with gender identity, forced by her parents to play with dolls, wear dresses and be concerned about pretty things. She rebels against this, preferring to be what her parents view as an unsavory tomboy. Eventually she drops out of school, leaves home and begins to uncover who she really is through online research and a connection with a transgender woman named Bibi. She becomes Morgan, a gender-free person who goes by they/them pronouns, gets sleeve tattoos of flames and has their breasts surgically removed. I like how Evaristo respects the character’s choice by switching the pronouns mid-section. Referring to a person as ‘they’ was jarring at first, but I quickly got used to it, and it was no big deal. But the fact that it was jarring shows how deeply ingrained society’s expectations are on gender, as well as how powerfully connected those expectations are to:
Morgan is the first Black trans character I can remember being front-and-center in a popular novel. I thought:
Many of you probably know that Evaristo is the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, and that she had to share the award with Margaret Atwood in 2019’s unprecedented tie. No disrespect to Margaret Atwood. I love her books, and I am sure ‘The Testaments,’ which I haven’t read, is wonderful. But let’s face it: Ties are stupid, and no matter how good both books are, after you read ‘Girl, Woman, Other,’ you’ll also be upset that the judges didn’t award the big prize outright. This is a beautifully constructed and powerful collection of women’s stories. I loved it. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. You should read it.
How it begins:
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St. Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo was published by Hamish Hamilton and by Black Cat in 2019. 452 pages. $15.64 at BookShop.org.
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Read this: ‘Hanging by a Strand’ in The Baffler is an interesting piece on the labor unrest at the Strand Bookstore.
Watch this: This video breakdown of the fight between Zach and Slater on ‘Saved by the Bell’ 28 years ago is INCREDIBLE. I’ve watched it six times.
Click this: If you follow BoG on Twitter, you’ll see we’ve been posting weekly questions. Here’s the most recent one:Friday question: What book are you most excited to read this fall? Can be a new release or something from your pile that you've been meaning to get to.
The responses include ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi (which is high on my list, too), ‘Memoirs and Misinformation: A Novel’ by Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon and ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead. If you’ve got a book you’re looking forward to reading this fall, reply to the tweet and share it with the BoG community!
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Until next time,
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