I’ve mentioned in the past how novels which are more like books of interconnected short stories are my favourite kind. “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo invents a new slant to this form of prose and it does so in a way which poignantly relates to the novel’s overall meaning. The stories in this novel revolve around particular groups which are usually composed of a daughter, mother and friend/lover/important familial figure. They focus on twelve central characters in total whose lives touch upon each other either glancingly or in a dramatically important way. Most centre around the lives of black women (many of them queer) in modern-day London, but their lives branch out across the past century as well as to rural life and other countries such as America, Barbados and Nigeria. There is no overarching story although a focal point is a new theatrical production at the National Theatre by one character named Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright. The play focuses on a reimagining of great African female warriors. The women in this novel provide an interesting counterpoint to the dramatization of this ardent reclaiming of the past. The lives and experiences of these modern day women are varied and incapable of being classified. Each forms their own unique sense of identity which is black and female, but also so many different things. It’s really powerful seeing how they variously connect with each other or sadly misunderstand one another amidst their varied and compelling stories.
Some readers scoff at new fiction which self-consciously considers issues to do with current highly politicised issues such as the diaspora, economic inequality or racial/sexual identity. But what I think is so clever about this novel is that it speaks about these themes so overtly you can see how they are a part of the everyday lived experience of women who came of age in the wake of feminism, black consciousness and/or queer rights. Because they are often made to feel marginalized this is a dialogue these women have with themselves, each other and the communities they live in as they seek better ways to articulate who they are and what they want. It’s clever how Evaristo attunes the reader to her characters’ quest to self-identify. When characters pledge unconditional love, rename themselves or reinvent their lives we feel a sense of foreboding rather than celebration because we’ve become all too aware that their principles are likely to eclipse their more complex individual identity and multifaceted needs. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of friction in this quest to define and understand one another especially between different generations. It’s why I think the dynamic of grouping their stories together works so well because you see things wholly from each woman’s perspective before getting a very different point of view from another woman on the same events, people and situations. It shows how there is no one clear way of understanding their lives or a singular truth about who they are.
There’s also an immense pleasure in seeing how these women’s stories intersect at various points and how certain mysteries within different plotlines are only solved by following each individual story. It creates a panoramic view of groups of people and lives through the past and present. To reign in so many different tales within one cohesive whole takes considerable talent and it’s clear Evaristo is an experienced and talented writer. Of course, the many pleasures that such a construction gives also means we miss out on the joys found in some other more traditionally plotted novels. Inevitably, some of these women’s stories will engage readers more than others. At times, just when you form a powerful attachment to one character the novel will move onto the stories of other women and we won’t see that character again except in passing. Part of me would have loved to read a whole novel about 93 year old Hattie or city worker Carole who is haunted by a sexual assault or Dominique who finds herself dangerously drawn into an abusive relationship on a woman’s commune. However, it’s a tribute to Evaristo’s power as a writer to leave you wanting more. At some points I felt tested trying to keep straight all the many different stories and characters in my mind. But this also means I’d be very eager to reread this novel because I think this would make me see the individual threads of their lives much more clearly. I’m sure a rereading would also allow me to pick up on some details I’m sure I initially missed about how their lives intersect. Nevertheless, my first reading of this novel was an immensely pleasurable experience filled with drama, sharp humour and compelling characters whose stories are a joy to read about.