BookBrowse Reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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Girl, Woman, Other

A Novel

by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo X
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
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    Nov 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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A sprawling patchwork of stories from a varied ensemble of characters, Girl, Woman, Other explores marginalized identities and the intricate and often uncomfortable ways people navigate them.

As we meet Amma, a 50-something playwright finally experiencing mainstream success in Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, her thoughts flow over the page in a poetic form littered with frequent line breaks and lacking standard punctuation. At first glance, this might seem like a challenge posed to the reader, a work that might be labeled as "modern" or "experimental."

If Evaristo's novel is experimental, though, it's been rigorously tested and is well out of the trial phase. This book is genuinely readable in the purest sense. Characters' speech, ruminations and backstories blend together naturally, proceeding in a version of the off-the-cuff style many of us write in daily as we text or tweet messages that roll out by their own logic, making complete sense to us even if they don't follow traditional formatting. The author has harnessed the easy expressiveness of this style and applied it to a polished and complex narrative.

Within the novel's digestible casing are the stories of 12 distinct characters, most of whom are Black British women. In addition to Amma, who takes us through her early days of feminist politics and promiscuity, we meet her 19-year-old daughter Yazz, socially progressive in her own way but eager to develop language and beliefs distinct from her mother's. We also encounter Amma's erstwhile business partner Dominique, and learn of a difficult past relationship she had with an African American woman from which it took her years to recover. Amma's childhood friend Shirley recalls her own long struggle as a teacher for underprivileged children, while a prize student of Shirley's, Carole, shares the traumatic adolescence she suffered and how this led to her determination to pursue a successful career at all costs.

Some of the characters are bound to one another in ways that aren't always made clear to us—or them—upfront. In fact, discerning who's related to whom makes up what loose semblance of a plot exists in Girl, Woman, Other. For a book that glides with such majesty on its characters' individual stories, any intentional attempt to tie them together might seem heavy-handed. But along with Amma's play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, which draws many of the characters together for its opening night, the mystery surrounding certain familial relationships exists naturally inside of the novel's broad focus on community of all kinds. Within this focus, we see the power that both reunification and forming new connections can have, even when these processes initially feel awkward and jarring.

Evaristo's novel contains plenty of uneasy moments. Some of these have to do with trauma sustained from assault and abuse, but the author also has a knack for portraying a specific type of discomfort that occurs in political discussions. Morgan, a non-binary character seeking a broader understanding of their gender with the help of strangers on the internet, tries to hold a dialogue with a trans woman who they simultaneously clash with and are drawn to. Yazz, at university, tries on a variety of views surrounding topics of racial and class privilege, feminism and identity. In one instance, a white girl named Courtney shuts down Yazz's assertion that, as a Black person, she's "more oppressed than anyone who isn't" by citing Roxane Gay, resulting in an interaction that makes both girls seem naive:

...Yazz, I mean, where does it all end? is Obama less privileged than a white hillbilly growing up in a trailer park with a junkie single mother and a jailbird father? is a severely disabled person more privileged than a Syrian asylum-seeker who's been tortured? Roxane argues that we have to find a new discourse for discussing inequality
Yazz doesn't know what to say, when did Court read Roxane Gay - who's amaaaazing?
was this a student outwitting the master moment?
#whitegirltrumpsblackgirl

I was initially uncomfortable with how relatively unchecked this moment goes, even with the very youthful vibe between the characters, wondering if some people might read it as Courtney really having schooled Yazz. It seems fine for Courtney to challenge Yazz's comment, but she does this by cherry-picking language from Gay's actually much more complex ideas about race and privilege to move the spotlight off herself. Evaristo doesn't exactly go out of her way to show this, but it's also hard not to read the above passage as intentionally ridiculous. Also, in the next section, Courtney adds that she "only fancies black men" and will lose at least 50% of her white privilege by having mixed-race children. At this point, it's obvious that the author is making fun of Courtney just as much as, if not more than Yazz, while also allowing readers to consider whether there may still be some legitimacy to the relatively unformed opinions of both. This sense of humor that's more expansive than reductive continues to accompany awkward moments throughout Girl, Woman, Other.

I also came to feel that discomfort (the characters' and my own) was part of the point of this reading experience and that, to borrow a phrase from a social media platform the novel both references and stylistically resembles, retweets don't equal endorsements. Thoughts and opinions are produced with such spontaneity and plurality, and over such a wide span of time and experiences, that it's impossible not to encounter some that are cringe-worthy. Again, though, this is just part of the nature of Evaristo's book. It's about the actuality of getting from Point A to Point B without always having all of the necessary tools and language, whether from a loveless marriage to a fulfilling relationship, or from internalized misogyny to self-acceptance.

Even in its title, Girl, Woman, Other makes it clear that the author's intention is to address specific experiences of marginalization. It's refreshing to read a book that encompasses such a variety of human perspectives and flaws but that still unequivocally centers Blackness, non-male genders and queer sexualities, as well as non-traditional relationships and family arrangements. While Evaristo's novel entertains many points of view, it doesn't stumble into moral vagueness or the idea that all opinions and experiences are the same. Instead, it chooses motion over stagnation, self-awareness over denial. It insists on pushing through discomfort and moving forward.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2020, and has been updated for the December 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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