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'Girl, Woman, Other' - Book Review

This review by Xelia Mendes-Jones was originally featured in the print version of Bad Form, with an update following Evaristo's win of the Booker Prize. Get your copy of issue 1 of Bad Form from our website.

When I set about writing this, I intended it to be a review. However, upon looking at the word typed in the title of my otherwise blank document, I found I had no real critical comment to present a balanced commentary on the book. After all, it’s just been – deservedly – long-listed for the Booker Prize. Instead, I decided to unreservedly celebrate the standout novel.

Let’s not beat about the bush here: Girl, Woman, Other is, in my humble opinion, essential reading.

At a time when otherness (separation from the white, male, heteronormative “normal”) is at the forefront of media attention, Bernadine Evaristo’s novel sets the lived experience of black, British personhood down in wonderfully unadorned, unpretentious language. Her decision to write in a free-flowing prose-poetry hybrid makes the characters – largely women of colour – spring to life out of the page in a way that is utterly and uncompromisingly human.

This is, of course, a breath of fresh air.

We follow twelve vivacious, unabashed, hilarious and heartbreaking characters, ranging in age from 19 to 93, as they interweave their stories through to a single unifying moment in time, overseen expertly by Evaristo. She holds no bars when writing these people to life: despite their wildly different backgrounds and roots, Evaristo manages to use their voices to explore racial, gendered, social and political discourse in all its forms without at any point making the reader feel like we are ticking through tokenism boxes, or having fully-formed ideology shoved down our throats. Instead, Evaristo emphasises that this otherness is in fact part of a universal experience. The novel is not written for any specific denominative group of people, it is written simply for that universal experience of finding yourself in modern and ever-changing society. As an Anglo-Indian, I at no point felt excluded from the stories, and know people of every race, creed and colour who have felt this novel spoke volumes right into their hearts.

Evaristo’s writing style is also the perfect vessel for this. Her prose-poetry walks the ideal line between expressive and unobtrusive. It takes the form of fewer full-stops and capital letters, giving the sense of spoken word; every now and then this spills through into formatting, but at no point does it distract or detract from the feeling and significance of the words and stories themselves. In this way, the writing is able to transcend the barriers of prose-readers who dislike poetry, poetry-readers who find prose over-complicated and people who simply find novels over-long and complex. Girl, Woman, Other flows freely off the tongue, and feels effortless to read in any way the reader wants. Dipping in and out of its often-brief chapters, or from character to character is easy, just as much as sitting and reading the whole thing in only a handful of sessions is.

There is simply something about Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other that makes it indiscriminate in its genius and beauty. It is at once universally accessible and proudly unique. If there is only one thing you read this year, make it this.

Update 03/11/2019:

As many will now know, since this piece was written, Evaristo (very deservedly) became the first black woman to ever receive the Booker prize.

Or, should I rather qualify, to receive half of the Man Booker prize.

Obviously, her winning was an immense achievement, not only for Girl, Woman, Other, which is her masterwork, for her own career which has been steadily climbing towards accolades of this nature, but also for the voice of the less-heard members of English-speaking societies.

However, it would be remiss to merely celebrated a well-deserved win without mentioning the travesty of Margaret Atwood’s encroachment on Evaristo’s hard-earned glory. It would be fair to say that the Booker Prize’s panel should be embarrassed by themselves. The nature of the award is to designate the title of 'the best in fiction’. That two books were selected, as I’m sure most will have read, directly flouts the rules set for the five-strong judging panel to abide by. Were there nothing more to the situation than that, it would even then still feel like a desperately unnecessary decision. Atwood herself expressed what many will have thought: 'I kind of don’t need the attention…'.

But this was not where it ended. One of the judges admitted since the winners were announced that she had in fact taken Atwood’s entire career into consideration when coming to her decision, something with contravenes the rules of the Booker prize. Further to this, The Testaments being, in my rather cynical opinion, a money-grabbing zeitgeist (following on more from the wonderful television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale as opposed to the first novel itself), the book is first and foremost: a sequel. That the panel was able to judge its quality as a standalone novel is quite frankly unbelievable. There is also the fact that Atwood’s publishers only sent the book to print in limited release in time for Booker long-listing; it was not already published.

All of these nepotism-suspicions aside, it is important even in cynicism to not let any of this take away from the achievement that is Girl, Woman, Other. Bernadine Evaristo and her novel are both more than worthy winners, and nothing about her sharing this prize should ever be used to contradict that fact.

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