Contemporary fiction: “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo

I have always found it somehow difficult to entirely enjoy a novel with too many main characters -say, for instance, over ten- as many focuses  and centres, if not more, and enough secondary characters to cram the streets of a whole town centre.

As I was going through the first half of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, I had felt quite determined to give it a purely personal but meagre OK rate and tempted to hold it up to pick up the next title on my list. But I was eventually glad that I didn’t put the book down, which I would have probably done had it not been a book-reading choice for May. The thing is that I do fancy to be able to talk about the selected books with the other members and exchange opinions, even when the choices are not to my liking.

The book has four chapters, each one presenting three women who talk about part of their lives and experience, plus the fifth closing chapter which includes the epilogue. I think I could somehow feel the author’s effort to bring everything and everyone together in the end, although overall it’s a well-structured literary work, nicely built up in a variety of writing styles and tones that each narrating voice deliberately takes over. Therefore, there are twelve women with twelve stories under the spotlight but, in reality, each of them throws in a considerable further number of not-so-minor characters, facts and actions that accounts for the elaborated polyphony of the novel.

Naturally, some stories are more entrancing than others, and there’s the risk of disengagement and distraction on the reader’s side. However, it is fairly easy to slip out from one story and get into the other, because each woman is connected to another woman by blood or through some other sort of relationship. Amma, the first one to appear in the foreground, is the connecting link of the entire novel. She’s a socialist playwright climbing to success, a lesbian and a mother, who presents her debut in London theatre, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, which many of the book characters attend. In fact, I think the whole book itself can be defined as a play within the play, its pages transforming into a fictional stage where the characters, in turn, dive into a deep and intimate monologue.

As a matter of fact, I had to shift my perspectives and opinion a couple of times while reading this multifaceted and not-easy novel; I did find the second half more enjoyable than the first one, because the overall narration goes in-depth and establishes an much more empathetic connection with the reader (or better, with myself). However, immediately after finishing the book, I was left with a bitter taste as I could not remember all the characters and the facts, in my opinion a sign of its overwhelming effect and the difficulty to thoroughly follow the entangled twists and turns of the novel. On the other side, I cannot deny that some of the stories completely won me over:

  • Dominique, who drifted to the States to follow her radical feminist lover, Nzinga, and then became her victim of psychological abuse and manipulation.
  • Megan/Morgan- it’s a single person- who struggled against the patterns of gender-based oppression throughout her teenage years and eventually became a web influencer, contributing to the definition of a much more relaxed approach to gender identity.
  • Grace, a young woman in the early XIX century, who discovers the love for her little daughter only after finding out that her abrupt detachment from motherhood was nothing but the consequence of the profound bleeding wounds inflicted by the tragic loss of her first baby.

There are stories of reunion, loss and separation; there are women who struggle throughout poverty, and others that enjoy the benefits of high social status or a hard-gained life-success; there are women that decide to identify themselves within a particular social representation and others that surrender to simply accept the role or image that society has imposed upon them.

Bernardine Evaristo has skilfully managed to bring together a variety of female characters and cultural nuances that are highly representative of the contemporary society, embracing a number of generations across the XX and XXI century. Undoubtedly, the author successfully achieved the ambitious narrative goal to depict a multi-coloured cross-section of the contemporary British society, emerging from a complex History. She did put the accent on conflicting oppositions and antithesis: past and present, the sense of political unity and a dividing Brexit movement, the centre of a long-decayed empire and the still-existing peripheries, the city and the countryside, the I and the other. And she evidently decided to do so by  focusing her attention on women, thus creating a variety of fictional individuals with different sexual orientation, belief, colour and race, connected through the subtle line of womanhood.

Society has somehow evolved faster than the social preconceptions and prejudice, therefore discriminating languages and cultural barriers have been heavily– and also dangerously- dragged into the contemporary British –and non-British- multicultural and multi-ethnic tissue of society. Feminism has been oftentimes distorted and misinterpreted, the skin colour has continued to matter on a social level, and the mainstream discourse has struggled to become more culturally inclusive.

So, going back to where I started all this from, Girl, Woman, Other is definitely a refined and complex novel that brings to the surface the creases and entangled lines of contemporary society, as well as the confusion and complexity of cultural overlapping and resistance.

As Megan reflected with hindsight when she could articulate the unfairness of her problematic childhood herself
and analyse it once her eyes where opened by Bibi who came into her life to make it all right

her mother was unthinkingly repeating patterns of oppression based on gender, one example was that Megan preferred wearing trousers as a child, which she found more comfortable than dresses, she liked the look of them, liked having pockets to put her hands and other things into […].

She [her mother] was determined to dress Megan up for the approval of society at large, usually other females who commented on her looks from as early as she can remember.

About the Author

Bernardine Evaristo (1959) is a British author of fiction, drama, poetry, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio. She was born in South-East London to a white English mother and a Nigerian father who was a teacher and migrated to the UK in 1949 to become a Labour councillor. Her paternal grandfather was a Yoruba Aguda, i.e. a descendant of freed Afro-Brazilian slaves who returned from Brazil to Nigeria in the XIX century. Her Portuguese sounding last names carries the vestiges of colonialism, slavery, diaspora and migration.

She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the Brunel University of London and the vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature.

Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker Prize in 2019.

One response to “Contemporary fiction: “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo”

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