That’s what this book is about; well, no; it’s about a lot more than that. It’s one of those books which’ll give you something, depending on who you are, and the kind of life you’ve had, I suppose.
It’s the story of a fella called Jesse, who leaves his family and the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the West Midlands, and ends up working as a gay prostitute in London.
On his journey, which begins as a teenager in the sticky throes of sexual awakening, and ends with discovery and salvation, Jesse meets discards and is abandoned by a cast of characters who are so well-drawn you can almost hear them breath. His hideous mother is a rare literary treat, and his step-father, who I’m still quite ambivalent about, is a man who has the kind of problems you’d expect for a white man who’s taken on a black son in a country that is on the verge of losing the tolerance it was once renowned for. As Mendez recounts memories of being constantly asked Where you from?, and other examples of casual and not-so-casual racism (the scene where a mate of his step-father washing a mug Jesse had used as though he’d been sick in it was pure genius – not just because of the writing, but because stuff like this happens so often during the course of your life that it sort of just fades into background. But here it was, so of course it wasn’t just me).
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 just 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 thesis on social history. 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 and no full stops, I thought I’d downloaded a prerelease. Shows how long 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 writing is tight, sharp, and pretty merciless. No quarter is given for the reader’s sensibilities.