It’s official. I have fallen in love (again). Twice in one month is pretty impressive, but with both Haruki Murakami and Bernardine Evaristo on my list of new authors in recent weeks, it’s hardly surprising. At moments like these I wish I could do nothing but read all the time, because Bernardine too comes with an impressive back catalogue that I can’t wait to launch into.
Like far too many people, I had never heard of, much less read anything by Bernardine Evaristo before last year’s Booker Prize and the ensuing furore. This week, however, I found myself having a clandestine affair with Girl, Woman, Other. I thought about it when I was supposed to be concentrating on other things, I carried it around with me to all sorts of impractical places, I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day to keep reading it . . . and when it was over I was left feeling bereft.
Because of the Booker affair, Girl, Woman, Other has been much talked about, so long before I got round to reading it I had a fairly good idea of what to anticipate. Yet, in a fit of brilliance, this novel smashed right through and went far beyond my already high expectations. I knew that it tells the stories of twelve different women, but what I didn’t know was just how subtly and credibly they would all be linked. I knew that it features a distinct lack of punctuation (something it has in common with fellow Booker contender Ducks, Newburyport, though on a lesser scale), but I didn’t anticipate just how non-disturbing this would be, allowing Evaristo’s verse-like prose to flow seamlessly into my consciousness as though I was being read to. I knew that it touches on a wide range of experiences – the vast majority of them female – but what I didn’t know was that I would recognise myself in characters with whom I have absolutely nothing in common. The chances of me ever becoming a black lesbian theatre director are zero, and yet I understood Amma and, in particular, Dominique. The fact that Evaristo was able to make me find myself in them is testament to both her unique character-drawing abilities and her strikingly astute way of writing about humanity.
Girl, Woman, Other is all about people – the feelings they have, the way their identities are shaped, their hopes, desires, ambitions, relationships, failings. It is also about place – Britain, most definitely, but also London, which was so beautifully evoked from the first page onwards that it sometimes seemed like a thirteenth character. For someone who spends a lot of their time feeling slightly homesick for London, this was just one of the small but perfect details that broke my heart.
Although I did find the novel moving at many points, it is also irreverently funny, never getting too serious about either itself or life. Although Evaristo manages to give each of her main characters a different and authentic voice, I felt that her cohesive style of storytelling also brought her own voice into the novel – an extra aspect that I greatly enjoyed. And while I found each chapter brilliant in its own way, there were some women in particular who stood out for me: Amma, Dominique, Bummi, Shirley and Carole. As I mentioned before, my life hasn’t been like theirs at all. But still I felt able to identify with them, and I hope that Bernardine would say that’s exactly the point.
If I had one criticism to make of Girl, Woman, Other it would be the occasional use of text-speak (or Twitter-speak) which I found to be troublingly inauthentic. I think this issue probably lies more with me than it does with the author – I find things like that are always very hard to integrate into a text – but in prose that is otherwise lyrical or clearly voiced I did occasionally find it jarring.
This is a small point and absolutely outweighed by the rest of the novel, which was a big part of my life as I was reading it and will stay with me for a long time to come. Novels that can make me laugh, crack my heart and help me see the world through different eyes are few and far between, but this one did all three. It also filled me with a great zest for living and a sense of huge admiration for the writer who was able to craft such an intricately layered story without it ever seeming too big or complex and still had the energy to deliver a perfectly pitched ending which I never saw coming.
I wrote down several quotes from the book as I was reading, but somehow none of them seemed quite right for my review title. And then, right at the end, I found them: the simple words that sum up this novel and my experience of reading it. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in saying that Bernardine Evaristo ends her Booker-winning masterpiece with one of my favourite closing sentences ever:
this is about being
My rating: 5/5