Reviewed by Ella Thorold
Despite the recent Booker prize controversy, Bernadine Evaristo’s stunning foray into the lives of twelve women living in Britain, both past and present, deserves to stand alone in literary history. It covers an astonishing amount of ground, spatially, geographically and socially, shining a light on the black experiences of radical lesbians in the eighties, rural farmers in the twenties and trans-people in the noughties. The book scales the length of Britain, from the Scilly Isles to a village near the Scottish borders, and spans over a 100 years, going back as far as the late 19th century. Incredibly, for a project of this scope, Evaristo’s writing never feels labored or contrived. It pulses with life, moving seamlessly from one story to the next, while remaining utterly convincing throughout. Indeed, the complex interior mindscapes are sketched with such a deft and agile hand that each substory feels as intimately personal as the last; funny, life affirming and very often heartbreaking. And while experimental in form, Girl, Woman, Other is easily devoured. The free-from prose, which often blurs into poetry, elicits a distinct openness and accessibility that’s rarely found in other experimental texts.
And herein lies its genius. Evaristo has written a story about being a black woman in 20th and 21st century Britain, and yet its reach is infinite. It’s democratic, crossing boundaries of class, race, locality, and gender. It takes established stereotypes from all corners of society and jumbles everything up, running amok with our social prejudices and expectations. There’s the bisexual nigerian cleaner with a first class maths degree, the council estate kid who becomes a corporate banker, the black lesbian victim of domestic abuse, the gender-free transwarrior who lives in rural Yorkshire, and the half-caste greatgrandmother who voted UKIP in the last election. Identity is, of course, central – and yet it’s also treated playfully, the theme undermined as much as reinforced. Intangible signifiers of identity like bloodlines and heritage are pitted again those more tangible, such as skin colour, accent and dress. Does who we are come down to what’s inside or outside, and which prevails? In the end, labels are shown to be obsolete; identities continuously shift, remaining resolutely unfixed to the very end. The only constant is togetherness, epitomised by the maternal or sisterly bond that permeates much of the narrative.
Questions of identity, race and heritage are undercut with humour, and brilliantly so. Irony in particular is used to superb effect, highlighting at once the absurdity and grotesque nature of prejudice and discrimination. In the epilogue, after the slightly racist Telegraph-reading Penelope finds out she’s 13% African through a mail order ancestry test (a trend that symbolically blows apart the notion of an essential ‘britishness’ or ‘englishness’), she gives her African taxi driver an extra tip because ‘he’s practically a sixth cousin or something’. Evaristo turns a racist trope on its head; ‘your kind must all be related’ becomes ‘we must all be related’. Such wit is of course immensely enjoyable to read, but it also speaks to something more important. In Girl, Woman, Other Evaristo reveals the essential human in all of us, the innate interconnectedness of our society, whether we’re Telegraph or Guardian readers, UKIP or Green voters, Londoners or Northerners. This is a novel for Brexit Britain, calling for a nation to rediscover our togetherness, told through the stories of black, British women.
Ella Thorold is a freelance copywriter and occasional writer based in Glasgow. She’s written for numerous publications including The Independent and environmental mag, It’s Freezing in LA.