Girl, Woman, Other

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:

   Amma
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.

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9 Responses to Girl, Woman, Other

  1. lizipaulk says:

    I have just finished this read last weekend and was blown away. Everisto has the dialect down perfectly and I really enjoyed the complex challenge of working out how the characters were linked together. Plus – the breadth of women was amazing. Glad you enjoyed it as well, although I agree with you re: the non-standard writing… I was fine with it, but what did it add? Maybe it was a stream-of-consciousness idea?

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’m glad you addressed the style: I have picked the book up a few times and always put it back because I just wasn’t sure I would be able to persist with it. Perhaps I was unduly influenced by my ongoing failure to persist with Ducks, Newburyport: that has put me in something of a retreat mode with respect to stylistic “innovation.” But it sounds like it is actually not frustrating and also that the book overall is well worth any effort.

    • Teresa says:

      I was really reticent when I saw the format, because I too am a little weary of stylistic innovation (can’t even bring myself to try Ducks), but I honestly didn’t even notice the style once I got going, other than to be pleased at how smoothly and easily it read.

  3. Ruthiella says:

    I am 75% of the way through with this one but can already confidently say it is a winner for me. At first, like you, I thought the staccato style of description would drive me crazy. And if it were one book focused only on Amma (or any of the other single characters) it might do. But when I got to the second section, I understood why she is giving us these short bursts of information. And now I am having to hold myself back from reading it too quickly because I can’t wait to find out whose perspective will be next and working out the connections.

    And absolutely to your point that Evaristo is underscoring there is no one Black British female perspective or experience. Pretty much with every character there is at least one point where I roll my eyes and another point where I am fist pumping.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good point that no single character would likely make for a whole book. Although there were a few I would have been happy to spend a little more time with, I might have gotten weary of them if they were the center of a book. The variety seems to be part of the point.

  4. JaneGS says:

    I was going to read this next, as my token Tournament of Books selection, but the punctuation thing gives me pause. Maybe I should listen to it…or maybe get over myself and broaden my horizons and give it a try. I love the premise, though.

    • Teresa says:

      I really stopped noticing the lack of punctuation once I was a chapter or two in. But if you’re wary, I can imagine it would be a great book on audio.

    • Care says:

      I listened to this on audio and I wish I had read Teresa’s review before I did. I ultimately gave up on it because I got lost and bored with the connections just popping up like the author had to. Maybe I will go back and finish it up eventually.

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