Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo shared the 2019 Booker Prize and the reward was richly deserved. This is a monumental achievement – not the prize, the book. It is a work of its time, so much so, that surely it will be read the century from now as an iconographic summary of an era, in the same way some of the characters in the book turn to Dickens.
Girl, Woman, Other concentrates on the lives of a group of friends and acquaintances whose experiences intertwine. They’re all women of colour. They’re not all black, they’re not all African, they’re not all immigrants. Some are, and some are not. Perhaps that’s an important aspect of the book. Whatever we do, whomever we are, life is a personal affair, no matter how resolutely and how bigotedly we attempt to categorise or compartmentalise it. Central to the plot is an occasion when several of these friends, family and acquaintances happen to meet. Amma is a writer. She is about to have her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, premiered at the National Theatre in London. It’s her great breakthrough after years on the fringes, possibly because of her message, possibly because of her colour, possibly for myriads of other reasons not spoken…
Friends, acquaintances and relatives are invited. And at the end of the performance they mingle in the bar. In between, we live the lives of some of the families. It’s the experience of the of the girls, the mothers and the others that have made these lives that form the undiluted and constant joy of this book. And it’s the detail of these lives, coupled with the concentrated, complicated unexpected turns of fate and often arbitrary decisions that make everything so utterly credible.
Bernadine Evaristo’s chosen style is loosely poetic, without full stops, so conventional sentence structures do not apply. With such an approach, there might be a danger that these collections of almost offhand comments, recollections and characterizations become disjointed or hard to unpack. But in the hands of the remarkable Bernadine Evaristo, they form what soon begins to appear like a literary equivalent of photo realism. It looks hard edged and definite, but when the details are approached, it’s blurred at the edges, always expressive and utterly credible. The result is a seamless stream of consciousness that really is conscious, rather than vaguely felt. Girl, Woman, Other is such a perfect blend of content with complementary style that the two merge to mere continuum and the reader floats along in an endless sea of vivid detail.
By the end we feel we have lived these diverse lives. The similarities are always more trivial than the differences, but it these that we notice. And then, via the experience of one character, we realize that no matter how fixed in place, time, ideology, politics or race we may feel our identity to have become, we are all orders of magnitude more complicated than we can imagine. And a moral? Perhaps that might be the wrong word, out of context, irrelevant anyway, reason introduced to a universe where it plays second fiddle. Metaphors, after all, only exist to be mixed. The resulting bake is complex, possibly random in places, always certain of its confusion. What is not at issue, however, is the achievement that this book crystallises. Put simply, this is surely one of the great, everlasting novels.