Tag Archives: girl woman other

Review: Girl, Woman, Other

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.

girl, woman, otherIn 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 It strives to challenge outdated and uninformed views, to give voice to minorities, and to promote equality- all important things to put in readers’ hands.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

 

Booker Prize Winner(s) 2019

I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!

41081373. sy475 First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!

I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.

Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.

42975172For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.

Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.

If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.

45735014Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:

I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.

Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.

And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:

I’VE READ:

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 35003282This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.

CURRENTLY READING:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.

WILL READ:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.

MIGHT READ:

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. 44599127This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.

46777584I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!

But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant