I had seen mention of this Booker longlisted then shortlisted then, of course, (joint) winner several times, and while the theme of following twelve, mainly black, women’s lives in 21st century Britain had appealed massively, I kept hearing that it was “in poetry” which did put me off. Then I bought one of her previous novels, “Mr Loverman” in Cornwall. THEN she won the split Booker and even though I was all poised to borrow Ali’s copy (Ali having started and put it aside in the summer but restarted and enjoyed it recently), but then I felt like I should somehow “encourage” Evaristo by buying the book. Even though she was clearly selling (in Foyles, there was a split table of the two winners, with equal space for both but more books gone on Evaristo’s side). It just felt right. So I did. By this time, I’d transcribed an interview with her and knew it read out loud well. But it was in poetry, would I be able to cope … However, spoiler alert: it’s not in poetry! It’s written in a sort of experimental, informal form, with sentences starting wherever on the page, but it’s perfectly readable, not too experimental and a very, very good read.

Bernardine Evaristo – “Girl, Woman, Other”

(19 October 2019)

This is just a marvellous book. We meet twelve women, loosely grouped into four sets of three who are related in some way, but throughout the book there are meetings or passings, and Chapter Five, “The After-party” and the Epilogue tie more strings together. It’s so beautifully done, and while I don’t want to give away any plot points that aren’t immediately discernible, I will share that at one point in my reading I gasped out loud and shouted, “Well played, Bernadine Evaristo, well played!” And messaged Ali, because she was the only person I knew who had read it and was immediately messageable.

The wonderful thing about this book is the insights into black British history it gives us – insights which white cisgender straight women like me can appreciate, insights in which black and othered women can surely see themselves reflected – a rare thing the more intersectional you get. I love the way it starts off tight inside London in one level of a cultured milieu and then spreads tentacles out far away, to America, and, more fascinating to me, the north of England, and a part-Ethiopian farmer in her 90s.

This book covers, variously and not exhaustively, straight and gay relationships, women and non-gender-binary people, race, class, pretension, domestic violence within same-sex relationships, parents, children, teachers, students, adoption, identity, education, conforming, rebelling, melding with the mainstream, having an embarrassing mum and dad, finding your feet at university, intersectionality, veiling, contraception, work, rape. But you know what it’s not: po-faced about Issues. In fact, the other thing I love about the book is its puncturing of bubbles of self-importance. This is done throughout the book, by characters to each other. Evaristo’s very much into showing the characters showing each other and themselves up rather than pointing it out for us, and it’s done very effectively and – crucially – amusingly. Yazz, the daughter of the once sidelined, now mainstream playwright and director Amma, has her own pretensions shown up by her university mates, for example.  Nzinga the activist who comes into Dominique and Amma’s lives is the most skewered, perhaps, with her exhortations to never wear black socks “(why would you step on your own people?)” or pants, which has Amma robustly turning on her. Similarly, Megan/Morgan learns a lot about gender and sex from Bibi but catches her out correcting them before they’ve learned everything and turns that mirror to face her.

I loved all the stories, but particularly those of Bummi, LaTisha, Megan/Morgan and Hattie. Bummi is a marvellous character, caught between her own Nigerian heritage and her daughter Carole’s need to cast off all her culture, or so it seems. She’s irresistable:

what is more, if you address me as Mother ever again I will beat you until you are dripping wet with blood and then I will hang you upside down over the balcony with the washing to dry

I be your mama

now and forver

never forget that, abi?

I learned a lot from this book. How there could come to be a part-Ethiopian Geordie of the generation above mine. How you can move from the sidelines to the mainstream but is it you or the mainstream that’s moved? How different families can look and behave. How business has to be done when there aren’t traditional ways to get funding or get ahead. How a transwoman can know she’s a woman even when “reject[ing] conformist gender bullshit as above, I still feel female, I’ve known it since like forever, for me it’s not about wanting to play with dolls, it goes much deeper than that” (p. 321). That’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen on how a cultural production like gender interplays with deeper identities of biological sex. This part of the book even bravely sets out the idea that “others might adopt a trans position as a political statement … it’s why women became political lesbians years ago” (p. 338), which is not something I’ve seen written down or really heard said before. From these very modern discussions we can move in an instant to banker Carole, not sure what kind of play she’s going to see:

the thought crossed her mind it might be the black lesbian sisterhood nod, she scrutinized them more closely, guessed many of them could be lesbians, even the ones wearing head-ties were wearing very practical shoes (p. 419)

There’s the othering, but there’s also a laugh in there. and that’s typical of this highly readable novel.

So from traditional storytelling of sometimes age-old stories to a very high standard with twists and turns that are expertly done to discussion of the very cutting edge – the bleeding edge – of gender politics, this book gives a snapshot of modern black women in all their guises, teachers to students, farmers to bankers, liberal arts-makers and transgressors to conservatives and Leave voters.

There are tantalising glimpses of the women Evaristo could have written about: transgender Bibi, Linda the film and TV props business owner. I’ve read that she considered including even more – perhaps a thousand – women, and I’d read that book, too.

Also read recently: “No Need to Ask” which is a history of the early maps of London’s Underground, the ones before the iconic diagrammatic map, written by David Leboff and Tim Demuth and acquired from Lorraine for my BookCrossing Secret Santa last year. Great maps which get more and more confusing as the lines proliferate, and thank goodness someone sorted it out! It’s the end of the month and I have too many posts left to write!