In surveying Britain’s social history over more than a century through the interconnected lives of 12 characters, all of them black women (save for two exceptions), Bernardine Evaristo has set an ambitious agenda for herself. Both in substance and style, her vibrant novel Girl, Woman, Other, co-winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2019, achieves that goal with a striking gallery of the lives and loves, triumphs and heartbreaks of these dozen memorable human beings and the world they inhabit.
Bookended by the story of Amma Bonsu, a lesbian playwright whose drama, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, is making its debut at the National Theatre, Girl, Woman, Other follows each of Evaristo’s characters through independent, short-storylike sections, while subtly linking each portrait to provide depth and texture. Farmer or banking executive, schoolteacher or cleaning-business proprietor, the novel’s characters cut across many levels of British society, with a focus on a span of time from the Margaret Thatcher era to the days of Brexit.
Some of these women wrestle with questions of sexual identity, while others must deal with incidents of physical violence and emotional abuse. Whether it’s Shirley King, whose idealism has curdled into cynicism after a lifetime of teaching high school history, or her former student Carole Williams, who fights to rise in the male-dominated world of international finance, Evaristo never stumbles in her ability to portray these figures with empathy, honesty and, at times, sharp humor. In every case, she skillfully reveals their struggles to define what it means to live meaningfully as spouses, lovers, friends and simply good people.
One of the principal pleasures of Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s energetic, at times playful style. Hers is a unique sort of prose that nods in the direction of poetry in both format and occasionally in content. She dispenses with the use of some conventions of punctuation without ever sacrificing readability. This exciting, often unsettling novel succeeds by respecting both the dignity of its subjects and the intelligence of its readers.