You know, I live in constant fear of coming across a Bernadine Evaristo novel I won’t like. I don’t class myself as a fan, yet I’ve got three of her books on my shelf. I can’t say I’m that keen on poetic prose (probably because I can’t write it), but I love the Emperor’s Babe. And Blonde Roots? Well, that was my favourite book for years, until Silk came along. I think this proves that reading outside your comfort zone often uncover a rare gem. So this the mindset I fixed on when I picked up (by which I mean ‘downloaded’) a copy of Girl, Woman, Other.
This isn’t so much a novel as a collection of intertwined short stories, covering the trials and loves of a group of women linked through ancestry, family and friendship. Some of the women are black, some are mixed-race, and some believe themselves to be white, and discover that perhaps they’re something else entirely. Evaristo doesn’t just touch upon racism, sexism and the nature of sexual identity, she dives in like she’s researching a social history thesis. Some of the concepts are challenging (especially if you’re a bloke), but they’re certainly worth a second read, then a drink, then a think, then another read. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with her on all counts, you’ll certainly come away thinking, ‘Okay, well, when you put it like that …’
Now, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so when I was presented with an opening paragraph with no capital letters, no quotation marks and no full stops, I thought I’d downloaded a prerelease, which shows how long it’s been since I’ve read something by this particular author. The style is very much a poetic prose; you need to tune in if it’s something you’re not used to, and if I’m honest, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the book any more or less if it was written in regular prose. So I guess the question is, would the author have enjoyed writing it so much?
The characterisation is deep, so deep in fact that you sometimes feel the character is reading over your shoulder. Everyone gets a rich and detailed background which makes even the unlikeable ones easy to relate to. Someone’s about to make the biggest mistake of their life and you find yourself talking to the book out loud: ‘Step back a bit, kid. You know she’s not right for you.’
On the surface, this is a collection of short stories about ordinary women living only slightly less than ordinary lives. Though in saying this, you have to remember that ‘ordinary’ is a relative term. In terms of what women of a particular time and of a particular colour had to put up with, then from my point of view, the racism and sexism is extraordinary, but when you consider the fact that thousands upon thousands of women went through, and still go through, this crap every day, then its frequency has a desensitising effect, in much the same way that we become desensitised to mass shootings.
For this reason, it’s good that books like Girl, Woman, Other and The Handmaid’s Tale crop up once in a while, to remind us there’s a difference between ‘ordinary’ and ‘acceptable’.
So as it turned out, there was no need to worry: Girl, Woman, Other is an excellent read. Nine out of ten.