Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of a series of characters, almost all of them Black women of varying social classes, backgrounds, ages, and sexualities. All of them individuals, all of them complex. She tells each story one at a time, with each new narrative focusing on a minor character from a previous section. As the book goes on, more and more connections between the characters emerge. This woman taught these characters in school. This woman is the grandmother of this nonbinary person. These two women went to school together. And on and on.
One of the wonderful things about this book is how beautifully it demonstrates that there is no single story of the Black woman’s experience in Britain. Although certain kinds of experiences and struggles come up regularly, when placed in context of a complete life, each experience is unique. And sometimes we’ll meet a character in one story and learn in a later chapter that we got a totally incomplete picture the first time, which is what happens when you only view people from a distance and through someone else’s eyes.
I think it’s possible to get really caught up in trying to put together all the connections between the characters (and this character map shows how complicated those connections are). For me, though, it was most rewarding just to look at the person Evaristo put in front of me in the moment and understand them as presented. Those other images of them in other chapters just provided some enjoyable texture.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d get on well with Evaristo’s style. She doesn’t use standard punctuation or line breaks, as in the example below, from the first page:
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the bend in the river as it heads past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clears up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight
This is the kind of thing that could be annoying in the wrong hands, but Evaristo’s writing is so fluid that I honestly forgot that I was reading something other than standard English. I’m not sure what this stylistic choice added to the book, except in a few instances where she used lists or short fragments to call attention to some heightened emotion. For the most part, though, it was simply something that worked, meaning that it never took me out of the story and sometimes helped me get further in.