It was a moment almost sacriligious – when many booklovers quietly and guiltily mused that perhaps Margaret Atwood didn’t deserve to win the Booker Prize. The book that some suggested deserved to be the sole winner of the Booker Prize 2019 (rather than sharing the honour with Atwood’s The Testaments), Bernadine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other is an electrifying, politically significant, and entertaining read. Following the interconnected lives of twelve black womxn, this novel was written by Evaristo with the intention of creating as many black British female protagonists as creatively possible to combat the lack of representation the author saw in British literature.
In episode one of the Auckland Writers Festival 2020 Winter Series, Paula Morris described the book as a “kaleidoscopic, provocative, very funny, and often poignant novel of the interwoven lives of women exploring romantic, sexual, family relationships, friendship across generations, hidden histories, rural and urban life, and of course - essential in all British novels - the crackling fault lines of race and class.” And it’s true - to read this novel is to see the world through the eyes of twelve characters so brilliantly, complexly written that they almost seem four-dimensional. As each section of the book unfurls, the reader learns that a character mentioned in passing in a previous scene gets their own past, present, and future; they too get the chance to be represented as a multi-dimensional womxn making her/their own way in the world.
That world is often cruel, oppressive, and full of experiences as horrifying as they are commonplace. Yet unlike in Toni Morrison’s classic novel The Bluest Eye, which spirals and intensifies to hammer home just how much oppression a young black girl can experience, the womxn in Girl, Woman, Other survive, endure, thrive. Their realities are different - and many hold opinions and world views that explicitly contradict one anothers’ - and all co-exist in the bustling thrum of a contemporary United Kingdom.
The surprising (and pleasurable) nature of this read has in fact been criticised by some as perhaps being too enjoyable, given the looming forces of racism and heteronormativity in the characters’ lives. However you can’t deny that expertly and ardently woven through this text is Evaristo’s black feminist countercultural spirit. Through the lives of the many characters (and all their witty, passionate, ambitious, hypocritical, sloppy, insouciant, jubilant, pretentious, insecure, arrogant, imperfect moments), this professor of creative writing and literary activist has in her eighth, Booker Prize-winning, Women’s Prize for Fiction-shortlisted novel truly shown the literary establishment just how much the personal is political.
It’s a self-assured, uncompromising, and celebratory work that aims to show us an alternate universe to the singular world and worldview propagated by the white hegemony. And what a very real and exuberant world it is.