Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a story for our times

The characters’ exuberant interconnected stories are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and heritages that encompass modern Britain.

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As David Olusoga observes in his book Black and British, in much of history “black figures are mute”, particularly the voices of women, “silenced by a lack of written sources”. The wide-ranging fictional works of Bernardine Evaristo, however, have helped to fill this void. The Emperor’s Babe followed a Nubian teenage bride in AD 211; Blonde Roots inverted the transatlantic slave trade – now in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo adopts an even bigger canvas, with a sparkling new novel of interconnected stories.

Spanning a century, Evaristo’s 12 main characters cover the stages of womanhood from adolescence to old age. Each chapter begins with a West African Adinkra drawing symbolising a salient quality of that section’s protagonist. There is the indomitable Hattie, whom we meet at age 93, presiding over “an ever growing gene pool” – including Morgan who used to be Megan. There is single mum and entrepreneur Bummi, and LaTisha, who at 19 “got two kids, no man, and feeling overwhelmed by the absolute mess she’d made of her life”.

As the novel progresses in clever twists and turns, the characters’ lives intersect, culminating in a surprise ending. Their moving tales of pain, joy and friendship are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and heritages: African, Caribbean, European. This is a story for our times.

The language of Girl, Woman, Other is exuberant, bursting at the seams in delightful ways, bringing to mind Chinua Achebe’s line: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” As in Evaristo’s previous novel, Mr Loverman, the language flows effortlessly between patois, pidgin, Cockney and the Queen’s English – a prose feast in which archaisms such as “whereupons” mix with the “wiff of whacky-back” and “codswallop”. Evaristo has chosen to use little punctuation, using line-breaks and leaning on the oral, poetic quality of language – this is a book that begs to be read out loud. Take Amma, the once struggling artist:

   she remembers pouring a pint of
beer over the head of a director whose play featured semi-naked black women running around on stage behaving
like idiots
  before doing a runner into
the backstreets of Hammersmith
   howling”

But that was then – now Amma is directing her own play debuting at the prestigious National Theatre. It’s on opening night that various characters will meet or meet again.

Evaristo is adept at writing humour: take the image of people “wearing outfits so tight you can see their hearts beating” or the person with a “face gone slack except for a mouth that holds all her misery like a drawstring tightened around a pouch”. And then there’s Amma’s precocious daughter Yazz, who “was never told off for speaking her mind, although she was told off for swearing because she needed to develop her vocabulary”. From witty summations to situational comedy, Evaristo has a knack for sending up contemporary society, with its “Swipe-Like-Chat-Invite-Fuck-Generation” and “the really irritating fusspots” – a reference to those with multiple food intolerances, food being a recurring motif in Evaristo’s works.

While there is plenty that entertains in this novel, there is also serious commentary, sometimes presented in a bold and shocking manner. Carole, Bummi’s daughter, who we meet as a hot-shot London executive, has had a troubled childhood. Her college boyfriend Marcus, is the “first person to make love to her with her permission”. Many of the protagonists in the book have suffered from sexual harassment and abuse, but none remains a victim. All are, in their own way, triumphant, feisty, even warrior-like – forming a mirror of sorts to the women warriors of Amma’s play.

Among the book’s reflections on sexism and racism are some thoughts on the role of a black artist. Amma’s kindred spirit and artist friend, Dominique, who leaves Britain to make a new home for herself in America, bemoans the fact that “Britain feels in the past, even when I’m in its present”. The father of Amma’s daughter questions why black people are expected to “carry the burden of representation” when “white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race”.

Samuel Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners was once considered the canonical novel about working-class black Britons, but Evaristo’s character Winsome (who arrives in England in the 1950s from Barbados) notes that it “didn’t give women the chance to speak”. Girl, Woman, Other makes up for Selvon’s omissions. Penelope, the one main white character, sees clearly at the end of the novel that “England is made up of many Englands” and with this, the book ends on a note of hope reaching for unity: “This is about being/together.”

In Evaristo’s eighth book she continues to expand and enhance our literary canon. If you want to understand modern day Britain, this is the writer to read. 

Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel “In Dependence” is reissued by Cassava Republic on 14 May. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is published by Hamish Hamilton (464pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes