Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Book - Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine EvaristoOn opening Girl, Woman, Other, I was immediately struck by the simplicity of its verse form – the text on the page looks like poetry, and it flows too, with line breaks instead of full stops. It is easy to read, easy to become immersed, one by one, in the lives of these twelve women. And what makes this book exceptional is the intricate way in which each individual’s story weaves in and out of the stories and lives of the other women. We get the perspective, for example, of the mother, and then the daughter, the pupil, then the teacher, nearly all of whom are black or mixed-race, women whose voices often go unheard, even in fiction.   

Bernardine Evaristo has talked in interviews about how this particular style of verse writing (what she calls ‘fusion fiction’) allowed her to dip into the women’s lives, into their subconscious, while keeping the novel compressed. We get just a brief glimpse into the life of each character, but we feel as if we know them, seeing everything, for a moment, through their eyes.

I love the way the book comes together the further you delve into it. You begin to realise how strange it is that people can live alongside each other, be friends or family, colleagues or acquaintances, and yet never truly understand each other. One woman, for example, mentions the name of her cleaner, and we’ve already heard that lady’s story in her own words. We’ve got to know her, sympathised with her. Yet, here we see her again from the perspective of her employer, who barely knows her. It makes you wonder about the lives of those you see around you. What do they really think? What obstacles have they had to overcome?

This is also a book that does not shy away from awkward subjects. It confronts every issue face on, examining up close what it’s like to question one’s own gender, to live with the horror of rape, to survive an abusive relationship and find the courage to leave, to experience the brutality of racism in the workplace, to push yourself to the extreme in order to escape poverty. Even period pain gets a brief mention, in Carole’s story:

the only morning she doesn’t run is when she’s doubled over with period pains for which she takes extra-strength painkillers in order to haul herself to work or risk being accused of pulling a monthly sickie

busted! yes, you are a woman

she even contemplated having her womb taken out to eliminate periods altogether, which would surely be her greatest possible career move, a tactical hysterectomy for ambitious women

Evaristo’s blunt, ironic humour reminded me, at times, of Claudia Rankine’s prose poems. Many of these characters spend much of their time struggling to get on with their ordinary lives in a society corrupted by routine prejudice. Though many of them also have prejudices of their own, assumptions that can be floored in a single moment. This is a book that will probably make every reader feel uncomfortable, at one moment or another, as we are reminded of our own assumptions, our own ignorance.

Not every character is likeable, and I certainly identified with one or two more than others. But each one reveals their secrets to the reader: the pain they’ve kept hidden, the fear that pushes them to succeed.

Here is a conversation between Yazz and her new Muslim friend at university:

you’ve really suffered, Yazz says, I feel sorry for you, not in a patronizing way, it’s empathy, actually

I haven’t suffered, not really, my mother and grandmother suffered because they lost their loved ones and their homeland, whereas my suffering is mainly in my head

it’s not in your head when people deliberately barge into you

it is compared to half a million people who died in the Somali civil war, I was born here and I’m going to succeed in this country… I know it’s going to be tough when I go on the job market but you know what, Yazz? I’m not a victim, don’t ever treat me like a victim, my mother didn’t raise me to be a victim

This is a beautiful novel that reveals how interconnected we all are, whether we wish for it or not. Though we spend our entire lives inside our own stories, we are also characters in the lives of others. It does feel like there is an agenda here – the desire to cover as much diversity as possible within the scope of one novel – but this technique works. The book ends with a moving revelation for one of these women, but it also demonstrates that behind every façade is a vulnerable human being, longing for acceptance.

Buy a copy of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

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