“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“Amma experienced commitment to one person as imprisonment. She hadn’t left home for a life of freedom and adventure to end up chained to another’s person’s desires.”
Evaristo’s novel revolves around the lives of twelve black women in Europe. In a woven narrative of pasts and presents, mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, Evaristo’s chapters read like short stories connected via loose, yet strong, threads. If pressed to identify a primary character, Amma stands out, as the novel begins and ends with her play’s opening night in London, a big break after a lifetime of writing personally relevant, yet untold stories few cared to see. Amma’s daughter is Yazz, the result of a planned pregnancy with Amma’s gay friend Roland, a black scholar resentful of the “black” disclaimer attached to his work. Having grown up with feminist, radical, resentful of the status-quo parents, Yazz’s sporadic disdain for the ones who raised her manifests in a questioning of her parents’ commitment to social progress. The continuing chapters highlight tangential relationships – Yazz’s friends and teachers, Amma’s neighbors and lovers, the social and familial circles growing wider as the chapters multiply. While the women share black skin, their backgrounds and viewpoints and experiences diversify, showing the broad-brushed categorization of Other is as vapid as the category of Woman.
The writing is captivating in its complexity. Evaristo composes long sentences embedded with pithy, meme-worthy phrases. I kept reading with my face, laughing out loud, biting my lip, furrowing my brow. I couldn’t predict the next plot point or even the next viewpoint character. As a writer, I admire craftsmanship. As a reader, I crave organization. I kept looking for an acquaintance tree of how all these people knew one another. The work explores privilege from a unique angle, the privilege acquired later in life and how combined with the reality of aging may temper one’s priorities and perspective. Often when I read fiction with a theme of Otherness, it is from one viewpoint, the Othered’s telling. The tapestry of Otherness that Evaristo provides in this novel projects outward in a sort of rejection of the definition and of labels in general.
If you appreciate a challenging, yet entertaining novel that begs reading again, this book will deliver. Bernardine Evaristo is the author of 8 novels, with Girl, Woman, Other receiving the Booker Prize in 2019. The feminist, progressive novel questions both feminism and progressive ideals, highlighting the factions behind the labels we’ve rhetorically exhausted.
“Megan should have been grateful and accepted her cute status, what girl doesn’t want to be told how lovely she is, how special? Except it felt wrong, even at a young age. Something in her realized that her prettiness was supposed to make her compliant, and when she wasn’t, when she rebelled, she was letting down all those invested in her being adorable.”