Books

Mix and match

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 03.01.2020

First, there was the surprise announcement on October 14th. No one had expected there to be two Booker Prize winners since it was against the rules, but then this year’s judges were unable to agree. They staged a sit-in after being told that they were not allowed to select joint winners. In the end, the Booker Prize 2019 went to both Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

While Atwood’s novel, which is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is a bit too didactic for my taste, Evaristo’s book reads like a breath of fresh air. There are twelve voices in it, mostly black or mixed-race. These characters, who were all born female, come from different backgrounds, their ages ranging from 19 to 93. Twelve lives unfold in separate chapters and at times overlap or interconnect in various ways. We are both inside their heads as well as outside.

Evaristo’s style is exuberant and delightfully fluid; her humour tongue-in-cheek. Often the prose veers towards poetry as paragraphs are fragmented and the pages start looking very patterned. Some lines might be made up of a single word only.

In the opening chapter you meet Amma Bonsu, a theatremaker in her fifties who has written plays for ages and now, suddenly, experiences a breakthrough: her latest play is about to premiere at the National Theatre. Long gone are the years she spent going to shows in order to heckle productions that offended her political views! In this context Evaristo recreates the 1980s, a London peopled with lesbian collectives who were creating art together and living in squats. Decades later, the literary Establishment seems to be ready to embrace more radical, marginal voices. Or does her consecration mean that Amma has become a turncoat? Is she selling out?

Her oldest friend is Shirley, who works as a history teacher in Peckham. She had been the only other brown girl at Amma’s grammar school and made a beeline for her in the playground. Shirley is the dowdiest character in the book by far. Not surprisingly, she feels awkward whenever she meets Amma’s more colourful mates.

One of the most moving characters is Hattie, a ninety-three-year-old farmer of mixed heritage who decides to leave her decaying Northumberland farm to her great-granddaughter Megan. The latter has decided to become a non-binary activist called Morgan after spending years looking for sanctuary in chat rooms with other young outsiders. She refuses to be a “she” or a “he”, self-identifying as gender-free and becoming an “influencer” with a Twitter following of over a million people. The contrast with Winsome, a bride who left Barbados for an unhappy marriage in England, could not be starker.

And then there is Carole, who leaves her Nigerian roots behind in her mum’s Peckham council flat in order to blend in at Oxford. She later achieves success in the City, where in spite of her perfectly tailored suits, new clients often look past her or expect her to be attached to the coffee trolley. Prejudices and clichés die hard, and, yes, Carole has to acknowledge that her school, which is the one Shirley teaches at, “was renowned for producing teenage mothers and early career criminals” rather than high-flying bankers.

There are a lot of gay and single-parent families in the book, yet, ironically, these less conventional set-ups routinely conjure up traditional conflict. Thus, Amma’s teenage daughter Yazz dismisses her mother as a feminazi and defines herself as “humanitarian”, which, she claims, “is on a much higher plane than feminism”. Just like any traditionally raised daughter, she begs her mum to shop at Marks & Spencer’s instead of sticking to patterned harem pants and bright asymmetric shirts.

Exclusion, insecurity, internalised racism and self-loathing, Evaristo tackles a lot of different issues around the black female experience, but her novel never feels like a preachy manifesto. All these issues are at the very heart of the different lives depicted. Again and again, support networks become a cause for celebration. They play a crucial role and seem to take over from the extended families of yesteryear.

Girl, Woman, Other is an intergenerational novel if ever there has been one! And an excellent page-turner for the holiday season – hilarious, entertaining and spinning an enticing, energetic yarn. Evaristo herself refers to her style as “fusion fiction” – the expression perfectly mirroring the versatility and variety of the voices she conjures up.

Bernardine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other, Hamish Hamilton, 2019; ISBN: 978-0-241-36490-1.

Janine Goedert
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