Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
The optimal way for me to experience this novel was to go into it knowing nothing about the story. I only knew that the author was British, a woman, and black. Girl, Woman, Other unfolded for me without preconceptions. Evaristo’s novel explores the lives of people of color, mostly immigrants, some who are lesbians, and transgender individuals, who are connected through family or work, living in the decades of the 80’s, 90’s and up to present time.
Fifty years after the decriminalization in England of same sex relationships between men, we have a “polyphonic novel” (The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2019) that realizes the profound changes in Britain since 1967 for LGBT citizens. The story begins in 1980’s London with the launch of an alternative feminist theater production, spearheaded by Amma, who identifies as lesbian. It describes a world that seems no longer possible, at least in the city London has become. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this was a London where abandoned buildings became homes for squatters, and some people seemed to be able to survive with little money. It was a time of experiments in artistic expression, alternative lifestyles, and a new liberation for people whose sexual identities were non-heterosexual.
The novel is written in five chapters, and the first four chapters have three sections, each focused on a different individual. In Chapter One, which included the story of Amma, I was intrigued by the story of Dominique, who follows a woman she becomes infatuated with, Nzinga, back to America. This story examines a controlling, abusive relationship. These relationships exist in all communities, even lesbian, women-only, rural communes. We may be quicker to ascribe certain behaviors to men, or to people of a certain class (poor or working class), or certain educational levels (people who lack high school diplomas in the US or leaving certificates in the UK). But Dominique’s story helps readers to consider the invisibility of abuse and to know it is possible in all places.
Chapter Two tells stories of three women – Carole, Bummi and Tisha, who are all interconnected through secondary school. Carole is good with numbers and her immigrant mother pushes her to apply that talent. She rises to high positions in the world of finance, a place where black women are “unexpected”. But it is Tisha’s struggles to make more of herself despite straying into delinquency as a teen, that stood out. She pushes herself to rise above the low expectations of others (her teachers), and by working in service jobs, she creates success for herself. Stories like Carole’s of a successful black woman rising from humble beginnings into the upper echelons of society tend to be more celebrated. But it is Tisha’s story that holds out more hope for the many young people who struggle academically, but possess an intelligence and drive that will help them thrive.
In Chapter Three, Shirley, a black teacher tries to educate her students about prejudice and is called “a credit to her people” by her headmistress. She is married to Lennox, a solicitor whose parents worked in factories. Lennox knows that as a black man he is vulnerable to police violence, but letting them know he is a solicitor can protect him. Shirley was Carole’s teacher, and after Carole went on to great success Shirley lives with the disappointment that Carole never came back to thank her for helping her on her way. Winsome, Shirley’s mother, is the second story in the chapter. She has returned to live out her retirement in her native Barbados, and her adult children, including Shirley, spend weeks there in the summer. The third story about, Penelope, an unpleasant white woman, teaches with Shirley. Penelope sees little or no potential in her black pupils, and Shirley tries, unsuccessfully, to challenge her views.
Chapter Four features Megan/Morgan, Hattie, and Grace. Megan, who later transitions to Morgan, was born in the 90’s and as a five-year-old was constantly pushing back against a mother who was “unthinkingly repeating patterns of gender oppression”. Megan wanted to wear trousers, not dresses, but her mother, despite being a liberal, was blind to her daughter’s discomfort in her female body. It was only GG (Hattie), Megan’s great-grandmother, aged 93, who accepts her as she is. Megan is racially mixed, but feels she is whole and not made up of parts. Hattie owns a substantial property that has been in the family for 200 years. Her descendants are conniving and plotting how to take it away from her. The final story in the chapter is about Grace, Hattie’s mother, and fills in a lot of the family history, or the parts that that could be traced. The final and fifth chapter ties together the various threads of the stories in the previous chapters, and weaves these disparate characters into a whole – their linkages, their life trajectories, their triumphs and their failures.
When I finished this novel, it was clear to me why this had to win the Booker Prize, and furthermore, that both The Testament and Girl, Woman, Other both had to be chosen. The announcement of two winners stunned the audience at the Prize Ceremony, and there have been numerous articles published dissenting from this decision. Evaristo continues to be slighted despite her great achievement. Early in December, only seven weeks after the prize was awarded jointly to Atwood and Evaristo, a BBC news presenter referred to Atwood by name, but Evaristo as “another author” who won the prize with Atwood. Evaristo commented in Twitter “How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”
This is a book for all readers. It is about people of color, many of whom are immigrants to England or children of immigrants, and three of the stories focus on characters who are lesbian, and one on an individual who is transgender. It is eminently readable, and beautifully written and a story of the England of today. I highly recommend it.