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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo - Review

Friday, June 26, 2020

After I finished The Shepherd's Hut at the beginning of June, it was just as the Black Lives Matter protests were beginning. Many happened, many people showed up in the middle of a pandemic to protest police brutality, and over the weekend so many things happened, like the taking down of the statue of a slavetrader in Bristol. There were so many tweets showing how we could support causes with money, among other things, like how to be a good ally to black people as a white person, and how to be more anti-racist rather than just letting the status quo be. I am very, very against racism in all its forms, and I benefit from white privilege. I have more to learn, as we all do. I donated some money but didn't have a lot to spare - I wish I could have donated more.

Then I was thinking about how racism manifests itself in my life, and what I could do to help that. I realised that most of the books I read are by white authors. I looked back at my stats for last year, and out of over 100 books, only fourteen were by black authors or other authors of colour. That's pretty shocking. I have lots of books by black authors so I have no excuse to not read them. So I decided that for the rest of June, I would read books only by black authors, and I would make a donation to some kind of cause supporting black people each time I finished a book. It isn't much, but it is a way to widen my reading, for sure.

I decided to start with Girl, Woman, Other, which I've been wanting to read for ages. I watched last year as it jointly won the Booker Prize, and I saw a lot of people talk about how good it is. My aunt bought it for me for my birthday and it's been down the side of the bed ever since it arrived. It is an epic novel in terms of scope - in fact I'm not sure I would call it a novel as it plays with the concept a little.

It is a novel about several women and one non binary person, most of whom are black, some of whom are queer. It concentrates on each person at once, separated loosely into groups, but each person has links to most of the others in the book, which makes the whole thing nice and cyclical. We start at the beginning with a woman called Amma, whose play is about to have its debut at the National Theatre, and ends at the after party of the play. In the pages in the middle we go through the lives of many people, and go backwards in time to the late 1800s, to look at the lives of some black and mixed race people at that time. (There have always been people of colour on the British Isles, go google if you don't believe me!)

Amma is 50 something at the time her play goes lives, and has spent many years working in theatre, setting up her own company, at first with her best friend Dominique. She is a lesbian, she has a number of lovers throughout her part of the narrative, which goes from her childhood to her fifties. She has a daughter, Yazz, whose father is an academic. Amma lived in a squat in Kings Cross in the 80s, which was probably the part of her bit that I liked best.

Yazz is up next. She's twenty and a student. She is fierce and passionate about life. I think I struggled with her part the most, and I'm not sure why. Next up is Dominique, who I loved. I'll trigger warn for intimate partner violence in her part. She is also in theatre, like Amma, and also gay. These three are the first chapter of the book, which goes over 112 pages, as the rest do. It's an interesting way to divide a book!

Next up is Carole, who is a lawyer. She grew up in Peckham and did well at school until she was raped as a young teenager (so trigger warning for that too) and lost her way for a while. She then asked a teacher, Mrs Shirley King, to mentor her so she could do well and make a good life for herself. The next part is about her mother, Bummi, who works as a cleaner, and who has a relationship with a woman in her part, which I really liked and thought was brilliantly done. Then comes LaTisha, an old school friend of Carole, and whose part I thought was really encompassing of a whole life, and one of my favourite parts. These three women are Chapter Two.

Next comes Shirley, Carole's old teacher and Amma's old friend from school. I liked her, but, like Dominique thought she was quite uptight. I loved the stuff with her family, and the next part is about her mother Winsome, who I also really liked. Winsome came from the Caribbean and married Clovis, and the two tried to settle in Plymouth (I think) in the sixties or early seventies but weren't welcomed. They ended up back in London working on the busses. The third person in this section is Penelope, a white teacher who is a friend of Shirley too, although she's quite racist. She's older than Shirley and has an austere childhood with parents who don't show her much affection. She marries twice and then settles down at the end of her part, although she is the person we pick up in the epilogue. No spoilers, though! I feel quite glad I went into this book knowing very little about who was in it.

Chapter Four starts with Morgan, assigned female at birth, who comes to understand themselves as non-binary throughout the course of their part of the narrative. Their family background is a mixture of people and ethnicities, but they grew up in Northumberland, close to their grandma Hattie, who is mixed race and who still lives on the family farm in the middle of the Northumbrian countryside. I loved her part, which went way back in time - she was a fighter, for sure. The last part is about her mother, Grace, born to a white mother and an Abyssinian father in 1895 (Abyssinia is what is now known as Ethiopia and Eritrea). I really liked Grace, too.

There is a twist which I did see coming and liked all the same. There are so many strands of narrative all beautifully woven together, creating something that IS a complete novel, even while it is made up of vignettes. I loved the different black lives that were represented, including families from different parts of Africa and from the Caribbean. It's a really accomplished book, and I will definitely read more by Evaristo in the future.

I am giving this a well-deserved five out of five.

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