Challenging the literary status quo

Karin Lock reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

As we work out what this ‘new normal’ means for our future, we may as well reappraise and transform our present. This could include dusting off that old bike and finally getting fit or it might involve learning something new and useful. One thing that will definitely improve our state of mind is to escape into a good book.

Girl, Woman, Other is not your average escapist fiction however. It begins as a refreshing and spirited novel, infused with the multifarious colours and sounds of our city, and Peckham in particular. We are thrown back into the heady 70s and early 80s decades of UK protest – Greenham Common, Clause 28, the squat battle of Kings Cross – a time of action, empowerment and self-expression.

Coming from the heart of these radical feminist and queer political movements is our first narrator Amma, a playwright. Fast forward a few decades and she has finally ‘made it’ with the opening of one of her plays at the National Theatre. As she recounts her journey, the novel opens up to introduce another eleven mainly black female characters who are all somehow connected.

The book’s descriptions and locales are authentic and meticulously observed whilst the characters’ thoughts, desires and dreams are carefully and lovingly depicted – warts and all. Using various mythical types – the hard-nosed baby mother, martyr schoolteacher, stush high-flier, overworked and underappreciated homemaker – the author portrays the struggles these women experience as they try to assimilate in, or fight against, the mainstream.

By exploring her characters’ delusions, disappointments and traumas in detail, Evaristo shows us the constraints that family and society’s expectations have had on their potential, and the sacrifices made to rise above them. She identifies the incidents of self-sabotage and then subverts these mythical identities to make them agents of generational change.

Here the writer is making familiar the feminist theory of ‘kyriarchy’, which proposes that domination, oppression and submission are produced by interconnected social systems (race, gender and class). By using experimentation of form (mixing prose, poetry and punctuation), she challenges the literary status quo, creating space for new ways of seeing.

Girl, Woman, Other features the near ubiquitous narrative structure that so many contemporary novelists now embrace – the polyvocal, multi-perspective, multi-narrator story. Evaristo is an expert storyteller who cleverly makes the reader the confidante of her characters’ conflicting emotions and realisations. The beautiful cadences of each characters’ speech give a raw fluid realness that is instantly recognisable and highly pleasurable to read.

This is a novel about the cyclical nature of life where, as one character points out: “The future is in the past and the past is in the present.” It is also about injustices, small and large, and about the importance of knowing when to speak up and when to let go. Indeed, no matter how hard some
characters try to escape their roots (often behaving badly along the way), there is always the chance for redemption and an understanding that wrongs can be righted.

Evaristo is no novice to creative writing as this eighth novel testifies. It has dominated bestseller lists since co-winning last year’s Booker Prize alongside Margaret Atwood, the feminist Canadian writer’s book, The Testaments.

An increase in non-white authors getting published today in Britain is a testament, in part, to Evaristo’s hard work behind the scenes mentoring young writers and judging on awards panels. Currently, the vice-chair of the Royal Society of Literature, she has proved her character Amma’s motto: on her own terms or not at all.

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