She is Girl, Woman, Other

First off: I loved it. I read it in a handful of sittings and struggled to put it down. It’s funny, charming, sad, loving, resplendent – it’s Girl, Woman, Other.

Schlocky introduction aside, part of the reason I took so long to write this review (I finished the book several weeks ago) is that I was unsure what criticism or serious thought I could levy at it beyond, “yeah, that was just great.” It didn’t win the Booker Prize last year for nothing. Bernadine Evaristo’s work of anthological fiction has stayed and played with my mind since I closed the book, its intriguing blend of prose and poetic verse flowing through delicate paper and my thoughts in turn. The literary form compels the reader to continue; the general absence of full stops imbues the text with a sense of the loose and the unconfined, as anthologies inherently are. This is a big and bustling book, unconstrained by the traditional structures of storytelling. Within is a universe of life as a black British woman, eschewing generalisations and instead riveting the reader with all sorts of twists and turns.

Evaristo interweaves between such a multiplicity of voices and stories sufficiently distinct to make one think that she herself was a thousand women made one. Indeed, to my great surprise, perhaps she is. Reading her guest essay in yesterday’s edition of The Times made me realise that the book is partly autobiographical; I won’t spoil it, but fellow readers of Girl, Woman, Other will recognise numerous similarities between Evaristo’s youthful recollections and the characters she has created. The book follows twelve main characters, gifted a chapter each from their perspective and recurring references amongst others, amongst which those known as Amma and Dominique are perhaps the clearest counterparts, the women we begin the book with.

What I loved most about the book – beyond the simply lovely, lulling pleasure of the prose – is its ruthless complexity. Each character is treated with individual care, testament in Evaristo’s tendency to return to the same events from differing angles, nothing ever looking the same between one person and another. Loose ends in one story are run with in another, reminding the reader of the realities beyond our own lives. This can become challenging because, despite Evaristo’s evident influence on the lives of her creations, her position as the writer is otherwise stripped back. We are inside their minds, not hers, which means there is a preponderance of thoughts, feelings, actions, beliefs and beyond which go narratively unchallenged. Instead, we as the reader are left to dwell and remember that it’s not an entire universe which exists within the book – but, rather, twelve of them.

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