Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel
- By Bernardine Evaristo
- Black Cat
- 464 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- November 5, 2019
This Man Booker winner boasts an astonishingly vibrant, layered narrative.
Look no further than Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other for the most distinctive novel of the year. Co-winner (along with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments) of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, it is its own testament to the resplendent lives of 12 resilient women in a very modern Britain.
Begin by ticking off the boxes: the unique prose/poem style that borders on the edge of free verse; diverse characters with significant stories to tell; and a structure that pulls the reader in immediately, seizing both the intellect and the emotions as the narrative unfolds. It is like reading Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and James Joyce simultaneously.
Each of the women has a chapter to herself. (And, in one case, themself.) Best to start with the catalogue of characters, three in each of four chapters. There is Amma, Yazz, and Dominque; Carole, Bummi, and LaTisha KaNisha; Shirley, Winsome, and Penelope; and Megan/Morgan, Hattie, and Grace. Through a series of linked stories, the 12 form a sort of Venn diagram of intersecting, sometimes overlapping accounts of their herstories.
At the center is Amma Bonsu, a black, lesbian, socialist playwright in her fifties. The reader first encounters her “walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city.” She is on her way to the opening night of her play “The Last Amazon of Dahomey” at the National Theater in London.
It has been a long, circuitous route. For many years, she and her closest friend, Dominique, have taken no prisoners at theatrical productions they’ve deemed insufficient. Amma has “spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her.” She and Dominique believed in “protest that was public, disruptive and downright annoying.”
Her play will be an explosive breakthrough career movement unlike anything ever before seen on stage. It will be reviewed as “groundbreaking, astonishing, moving, controversial, original” — almost like Evaristo’s novel — as it pays homage to the “fearless ferocity” of women warriors, giving classical events a modern relevance.
Amma and Dominique co-founded the Bush Women Theatre Company, which “captured their intentions/they would be a voice in theatre where there was silence/black and Asian women’s stories would get out there/they would create theatre on their own terms/it became the company’s motto/On Our Own Terms/or Not At All.”
The motto might just as well have been the mantra for their lives. Their plays were performed in community centers, libraries, at women’s festivals and conferences. They produced a monthly Bush Women samizdat, launched at Sisterwrite, that only lasted two issues due to “pathetically poor sales.”
Amma produced a daughter, Yazz, born “nineteen years ago in a birthing pool in [her] candlelit living room/surrounded by incense, the music of lapping waves, a doula and midwife” and her gay friend Roland, the first Professor of Modern Life at the University of London, who had agreed to father the child.
That child, Yazz, though cut from the same cloth as her mother, disavows old-fashioned feminism for being a “humanitarian, which is on a much higher plane than feminism.” She aspires to be a “journalist with her own controversial column in a globally-read newspaper because she has a lot to say and it’s about time the whole world heard her.”
She is the prime mover in her “uni squad” that includes a “privileged princess,” who pays for a lawyer for a classmate who was raped, and another who is “developing a female Somali superhero/who hunts down men who hurt women/and castrates them, slowly/without anaesthetics.”
At the play’s opening, Yazz sits in a seat “chosen by her Mum in the middle of the stalls, one of the best in the house” just as the curtain is about to go up.
Dominique, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to be attending the premiere. She has moved to America to be with Nzinga, a Texan who soon proves to be controlling. They live in Spirit Moon, a “wimmin’s” commune, and take on new names until another member helps Dominique escape Nzinga’s “wrath, unreasonableness, and general animosity” and ferrets her away to West Hollywood.
The novel’s second triumvirate of character studies — Carole and Bummi Williams, and LaTisha KaNisha Jones — represents a trio seeking success. Carole’s morning mantra is, “I am highly presentable, likeable, clubbable, relatable, promotable and successful.”
Her achievements have not come easily. She and her mother, Bummi, lived in council flats until a teacher, Shirley King (Amma’s oldest friend), recognized Carole’s math skills and encouraged her to assimilate out of her class, gaining a position at Oxford. That leads to employment in the “orbit of equities, futures and financial modeling.”
Bummi, a child of well-educated Nigerians, has her own degree in math. She begins as a domestic but soon becomes chief executive of BW Cleaning Services International. Her first client is a wealthy, retired schoolteacher, Penelope Halifax, who (like Shirley) reappears in a later section of the book. Bummi and Carole make personal choices that bring them “new life.”
LaTisha, a school friend of Carole’s, “crawls her way out of the horror movie of her teenage years,” has three children by various men, and begins “climbing the giddy heights of retail supremacy.” By the time she is 30, she has become a supermarket supervisor despite what Shirley and Bummi expected of her.
Shirley, Winsome Robinson, and Penelope form the group in part three. Shirley, a history teacher, arrived at Peckham School for Boys and Girls in the “multicultural neighborhood” with a double mission: to “make history fun and relevant” and to be “an ambassador/for every black person in the world.” She considers Carole her “first and greatest achievement.”
Winsome has precarious ties with both Amma and Shirley. Having spent her “working life standing on the open platform of a Routemaster bus,” she dismissed Shirley’s “tough life [with]…excellent health, cushy job, hunky husband, lovely daughters and granddaughter, good house and car, no debts, free luxury holiday in the tropics every year.”
Now in her eighties, Winsome loves to entertain and is an especially expert cook. But she also has a bombshell secret she’s cooked up for Shirley.
Neither is Penelope’s life as it seems. Shirley’s colleague at school, twice divorced, she has suffered through a “Tyrannosaurus Brute who believed in the superiority of the male species” and a “Le Creep” psychologist whose “benevolent probing had a tendency to turn into intrusive interrogation.” She “loathed that feminism was on the descent” and championed petitions at work for both the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act.
The last set of women — Megan/Morgan, Hattie, and Grace — is related by blood. Their section, like the others, functions as a biography of the characters. Just as Yazz defines herself as “humanitarian,” Megan/Morgan (part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, part English) is the one nonbinary person who identifies as “gender-free,” a pansexual with a long-term trans-female partner.
As a media critic, the first review of Amma’s play is Morgan’s: “OMG, warrior women kicking ass on stage! Pure African Amazon blackness. Feeeeerce! Heart-breaking & ball-breaking! All hail #AmmaBonsu #allblackhistorymatters.”
Hattie is Megan/Morgan’s 93-year-old great-grandmother. She tends to the Rydendale family farm and acreage in northern England. She is also the keeper of “wicked family secret[s].”
Morgan often helps Hattie with chores. Grace, an Abyssinian, is Hattie’s deceased mother. Her story, set in the 1920s, recounts a life of many sorrows, including the deaths of her young children. Her lineage holds one of the most significant, jaw-dropping revelations of the novel.
The final part, “The After-party,” brings the narrative full circle when the curtain comes down on Amma’s play. Many of the women — including a surprise, last-minute arrival — reappear as if it were an encore with spotlights on their intertwined lives.
Superlatives pale in the shadow of the monumental achievement of Girl, Woman, Other. Few adjectives suffice. It’s hard not to overpraise this brilliant novel. Evaristo’s verbal acrobatics do things language shouldn’t be able to do. It’s a Cirque du Soleil of fiction.
Readers should put down whatever book they’re reading and immerse themselves in this one. Bernardine Evaristo is the writer of the year. Girl, Woman, Other is the book of the decade.
Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticisms appear in numerous newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online.