Book Review: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other

Regardless of how you feel about the Booker Prize being split between two authors last year for only the second time in its history, we can all feel glad that it brought the wonderful Bernardine Evaristo to a wider audience. Her eighth novel, Girl, Woman, Other shared Booker honours with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the latter being the veteran author’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale.

The exuberant narrative of Girl, Woman, Other follows 12 characters, most of them black British women. Each woman has a chapter to herself and whilst their stories occasionally intersect or overlap, their lives are very different. There is Amma, a lesbian playwright, who lives in “the most desirable squat in London” but there is also her friend, Shirley, a strait-laced school teacher who feels adrift in Amma’s world. Non-binary Morgan, who was born Meghan, is made the beneficiary of a farm in the will of Hattie – known affectionately as GG – an old woman. GG rather sweetly tells them “invite all your non-binding people to come and stay and be themselves if you like.”

This is a very funny book, not least when it comes to what the members of Amma’s squat will eat: “the vegetarians demanded a non-meat policy, the vegans wanted it extended to non-dairy, the macrobiotics suggested everyone eat steamed white cabbage for breakfast.” Evaristo has a lightness of touch which imbues this polyphonic novel with humour and grace. There is plenty of darkness here too, however: from domestic abuse to heart-breaking racial prejudice.

Some of the most complex and moving relationships are between mothers and daughters, notably in the shocking sequence when a mother embarks on a passionate sexual relationship with her daughter’s husband. There is also much to laugh at in these dynamics: when Carole (who will go on to be an investment banker) complains to her Nigerian mother Bummi that everyone at university hates her, her mother asks “did you even ask them? did you go up to them and say, excuse me, do you hate me?” But she goes on to say “you must go back and fight the battles that are your British birthright, Carole, as a true Nigerian.”

Many have commented that Evaristo laid out her manifesto for this novel in its dedication: “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.” This may be off-putting to some but it is not the whole story, however. There is a gentleness to Evaristo’s exploration of modern Britain and, alongside a skewering of the concept of “wokeness”, an understanding that misunderstandings don’t always arise because of hostility. An older woman has difficulty grasping the non-binary identity of her younger friend but tries to explain not unkindly to her friend “I was born in the nineteen-twenties, you’re expecting too much of me”. There is a tolerance here, a capaciousness to Evaristo’s world view which is sadly lacking from so much current polarised debate. There is also a great deal of pleasure contained within these pages.

What did you think? Do leave your comments below, and find all the details of our January book club here.

— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
15th January 2020