I’ve finally read the second winner of the 2019 Booker Prize: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman Other! (Second only in that I happened to read them in this order.) Fortunately, this one went much better for me than Atwood’s The Testaments did.
In the novel, twelve lives overlap in Britain. Most of these are women, most are black, all are unique. At the after party of a ground-breaking play’s opening night in London, through quiet conversations and seemingly ordinary encounters, twelve stories quietly intersect. Between the introduction to the play and gathering afterward, the reader follows each character through a vignette-like study of their history and experiences; we follow these people through history and around the world, ultimately seeing them come together around the central play. Rather than simplifying these perspectives by collecting them together, Evaristo shows how one scene can be filled with many perspectives, each as vital as the next.
“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…”
I want to start off here by saying that I found Girl, Woman, Other a worthy Booker winner, since that was the context in which I read it. If you read only one Booker winner this year, I highly recommend choosing this one, though of course Atwood’s novel certainly has its audience as well. I haven’t read the entire shortlist yet (4 and 1/2 out of 6), so it’s perhaps unfair to pick favorites at this point, but the clear standout for me is still Ducks, Newburyport. It’s inventive and captivating in a way nothing else on the shortlist comes close to in my opinion, which (sadly) includes Girl, Woman, Other. That said, I don’t begrudge Girl, Woman, Other its win. For one thing, I can understand that readers who only pick up the Booker winner(s) because of their win are more likely to actually read Evaristo’s novel whereas they might give a 1k-pager like Ellmann’s a pass for its sheer (and not totally necessary) size. Girl, Woman, Other uses an interesting format, covers timely topics, and is undeniably readable. It strives to challenge outdated and uninformed views, to give voice to minorities, and to promote equality- all important things to put in readers’ hands.
“maybe that was the point, a completely gender-free world, or was that a naïve utopian dream?”
What I liked:
- Girl, Woman, Other is compulsively readable in its twelve bite-sized pieces. Averaging around 30 pages each, every chapter is its own adventure, each focusing on a different character. There are some obvious connections between them throughout the book, particularly within the sets of 3 that the chapters are sorted into, but each section is distinct and more or less complete in itself (though this is definitely a novel, not a set of connected short stories- reading any of them as a standalone would not have the proper effect).
- The writing style uses spacing to connect and divide ideas rather than abiding by proper punctuation rules. There are no periods, capitalization is restricted to proper nouns, and yet it’s still clear where the sentences are. Evaristo uses commas and indentations to mark breaths/breaks and changes of subject in a way that feels simultaneously comfortable and artistic, and lends the story its own rhythm.
- The representation is phenomenal. By featuring so many women, so many black characters, such a range of genders and sexualities, Evaristo really highlights a side (or many sides) of Britain that gets overlooked and/or dismissed. She gives the spotlight to people who are told (or shown) that they don’t belong in Britain or are treated as outsiders, demonstrating that these, too, are undoubtedly a part of Britain’s lifeblood and just as worthy of being heard.
“…it’s crazy that people are so stupid to think over one and a half billion Muslims all think and act the same way, a Muslim man carries out a mass shooting or blows people up and he’s called a terrorist, a white man does the exact same thing and he’s called a madman…”
What I didn’t like:
- Because Girl, Woman, Other features so very many diverse characters, there are a few times when it feels like the narration is just checking minority boxes. For instance, we get full details on all of Yazz’s (diverse) college friends, even though they’re only really there to prove how “woke” Yazz is. Later on, as Morgan realizes they’re gender free, they makes a friend who gives them the rundown on the LGBTQ+ community; this friend explains all the options for gender identities, explaining what’s wrong with the “gender binary” view and what is or isn’t appropriate to say, in an obvious attempt at educating the reader. Moments like these just felt like Evaristo was maybe trying to tackle too many issues in one go for each of them to feel natural and convincing in the overarching story.
- With the focus on all these various personalities, the plot takes a backseat. Though Amma’s play loosely ties everyone together, it doesn’t include much in the way of tension or climax or anything I would normally associate with “plot.” Instead, each of the chapters flashes back and makes its own plot out of every character’s life. In about 30 pages, we essentially follow each main character (all narrated in the third person and referred to by name, which helps avoid confusion) through their entire life story. This can become repetitive despite the characters’ disparate experiences because essentially it means we’re getting twelve similar trajectories in which each character faces repression or exclusion from a predominately white society, and then this character comes of age, overcomes adversity, finds a way to live another day. None of these threads are quite “resolved,” since the social issues at hand are mostly still ongoing, but they do follow a pattern nonetheless. Additionally, because these vignettes are often presented as retrospective, we generally know some key information beforehand about where the character will end up, which decreases the tension. Though I loved the connections between the characters, those moments alone didn’t provide the book with much momentum.
But, despite this not being my favorite story, I enjoyed the read and I love what this book is doing- giving voice to a lot of people who haven’t had a fair audience. It’s an important read and an accessible winner that (in my opinion) offers more substance than it’s co-winner, The Testaments. I think with the caveat of wanting you to know going in that’s it’s not the most plotty and is blatantly trying to expand your worldview sometimes at the cost of the entertainment factor, this is one of those books that I really would recommend to basically everyone. I would not recommend Ducks, Newburyport that widely, so in the end, I’m happy with this win!
“she watches the stream of people crossing the bridge this morning, most of whom are more engaged with their phones, taking selfies, tourist pics, posting, texting, than actually taking in the views either side of the bridge
people have to share everything they do these days, from meals, to nights out, to selfies of themselves half naked in a mirror
the border between public and private are dissolving”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not in a rush to read more from Evaristo, though I wouldn’t count it out at this point. I’ll be interested to see what she publishes next, for sure. In any case, I’m very glad to have read this one and I can see myself recommending it often and eventually rereading. Not at all a waste of my time, though waiting for it to win the Booker perhaps put a bit more pressure on it for me than if I had read it earlier.
(I’ll probably post some sort of final 2019 Booker Prize overview either this month or next when I get through the last two titles I’m planning to read (for now). At that point I will have read 12/13 of the longlisted books, and I’d like to talk final thoughts on each of the books and on the shortlist and prize results before I cap off my 2019 Booker experience.)
Are there any 2019 Booker nominees you’re still planning to read before next year’s prize?
The Literary Elephant