Rating 5 stars
What better reason to start reading a novel about what it means to be female in Britain today than it being International Women’s Day? I’ve wanted to read Bernardine Evaristo’s book since it won the Booker prize last year.
A work colleague lent her copy to me. We have book chats in the brew room and share an interest in women who write about the act of being a woman. We read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women at the same time, both of us finding it a grim but essential read. She read Girl, Woman, Other before me and recommended it to me as more uplifting but no less essential than Invisible Women.
Sometimes it is a conscious act, this thing of being a woman. Women have been othered by society, told they’re not as important as men, told how to be women, so much so that it can be difficult just to be without deliberation.
Evaristo’s novel explores that being through the stories of women whose lives intersect over a period of more than a century. She captures the reality of intersectionality without naming it as such. People exist. They are women, men, gay, trans, Black, mixed, all manner of things discriminated against and accepted. They support and reject each other, appreciate and misunderstand each other, love and abuse each other. They are human, selfish, opportunistic and generous.
She is excellent on the way Western society’s gaze makes women feel throughout their lives. From the over-scrutiny women are subjected to during their fertile years to the invisibility that comes once society deems them over the hill. She discusses what being a woman means in relation to notions of femininity and masculinity. She questions why women can’t just be, the way men are allowed to just be.
If sometimes Evaristo’s characters verge on cliché it’s because there is truth to what she conjures. There are lived realities behind the fictions Evaristo has created.
The first four chapters are each divided between three characters, connected through blood and friendship. Each voice recounts their present life and their past. Each person has struggles. Some are better than others at seeking help.
Evaristo shows that we are capable of great cruelty to one another, even when we claim to love each other, and that cruelty isn’t gender specific. Women who want to smash the patriarchy are seen to be as patriarchal, as chauvinist as the men they want to expunge from their lives. Daughters have fractured relationships with both of their parents. Everyone is selfish while denying that their behaviour has self-interest at its core. Everyone has a desire to belong somewhere, some of us forge our own communities, others among us compromise on who we really are in order to fit in.
Evaristo chronicles the ways in which Black people have been othered, from the recent arrivals from Commonwealth countries to those born in the UK. She makes the othering seem mundane, which makes its nastiness harder to stomach. Her characters are matter of fact about both the inevitability of racism and the way in which they deal with it. They deal with it in a variety of ways. They fight, they comply, they change themselves, they change the world around them. Evaristo is non-confrontational in her writing, but she confronts the issues that face people of colour all the same.
The particulars of the lives of Evaristo’s characters might be grounded in race and culture that isn’t white, but the focus is on the common ground that we all share, regardless of skin colour, the things that are found in our human reactions to the things life throws at us. I have never experienced racism, but I can understand the way the characters in this novel respond to it.
It’s unfair to compare two books simply on the basis that they are written by women of colour and have multicultural Britain as their focus, but Girl, Woman, Other is everything that White Teeth failed to be for me. Both are stories that have a point, that seek to show the reader a world not commonly found in literary fiction, but Evaristo’s work feels more human, her characters seem less like character studies and more real than Smith’s. There’s a confidence about Evaristo’s writing that means she doesn’t need to prove herself. That comparison is particularly unfair, I know, since White Teeth was Smith’s first book and Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth.
My favourite thing about the novel is the way in which the stories intersect. Characters yet to be encountered are glancingly introduced in another character’s story arc. Those we have already met become notes of familiarity further down the line. It creates a sense of balance as Evaristo shows us the same story from multiple perspectives. Characters can be unreliable narrators of their own stories, but so too are those around them unreliable observers. Through the gaps, Evaristo allows us to glimpse the fuller story.
The ending ties things up beautifully. There’s redemption for one of the more awful characters, who learns that you can’t take anything for granted. There’s peace for one of my favourite characters as well.
I loved this book. Until she won the Booker prize last year, I hadn’t encountered Evaristo’s writing. There’s a poetic quality to it. The prose is structured on the page as though it was a poem. The writing would be lyrical even without this. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Evaristo’s books.