Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo — a celebration of soul sisters
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Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth book Girl, Woman, Other brims with vitality. Here are the stories of 12 women, stretching from present-day London across the past century and the length of the country, as we watch the complicated unfurling of their lives. Anglo-Nigerian Evaristo explores the diversity of today’s Britain and points towards a more colourful alternative history, where, for instance, Slim — an African-American living in the Scottish borders — sees a portrait of a bride from 200 years ago, previously passed off as the daughter of a Spanish merchant, and recognises her as “one of us”.
The novel’s central characters have roots in countries ranging from Nigeria to Ethiopia, to the Caribbean, to Scotland, so that the label “black” immediately becomes ridiculously simplistic and reductive. “Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English / which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being”. Racial differences are highlighted in order to explore the preoccupations that really do link them together — not just with each other, but with every woman, every human.
Evaristo writes sensitively about how we raise children, how we pursue careers, how we grieve and how we love. We hear 19-year-old Yazz’s fierce ambition to be a journalist after university chime with supermarket supervisor LaTisha’s determination to climb “the giddy heights of retail supremacy”, and with successful banker Carole’s drive to “get on up, Carole, get on up / which is exactly what she’s doing as she disappears between the glass revolving doors of the tall office building”.
Previously, Evaristo has written verse novels, prose novels and drama among other types of literature, and the form she chooses here is breezily dismissive of convention. The flow of this prose-poetry hybrid feels absolutely right, with the pace and layout of words matched to the lilt and intonation of the characters’ voices. When Penelope is told on her 16th birthday that she’s “a foundling” the line breaks show her emotional unravelling as she suffers: “the feeling of being / un / moored / un / wanted / un / loved / un / done / a / no / one”.
In the Epilogue, the one main character who thinks of herself as white is surprised to discover “only 17 per cent of her was British”. In Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo celebrates the mix of African and British in all of our DNA; moreover she captures the shared experiences that make us, as she puts it in her dedication, “members of the human family”.
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 464 pages