I have come late to this book having fully intended to acquire and read it months ago (even before it won the Booker). But with it safe on the shelf, other things (books) seemed to get in the way. Finally I settled to it and what a read. I agree with the judges this surely is one of the finest novels of 2019, but it is so much more. It is a novel about women, women getting on with their lives, supporting their families and friends regardless of the difficulties, in a world where life is not fair and they do not make the rules. But the characters feel real, the storytelling is assured and this is a compelling read – although occasionally it might take you close to uncomfortable places in your own past. But for Londoners there will an extra dimension – the city, evolving, with all its good things and gremlins is a major character too.
The simple basics are that Amma Bansu, Londoner, has finally “made it” as a writer and her feminist play on “The Last Amazon of Dahomey” will be produced in a major London theatre, in spite of her insecurities and worries, to great acclaim. Her writing has finally reached “its time” and moved across from fringe to mainstream. Family, friends and acquaintances will gather for the first night. The reader will have previously been introduced to Amma, best friend Dominique who now lives in the US, daughter Yazz (plus her best friends at university) ex lovers, partners and associates. Through these collective tales we see Amma growing from an ambitious teenager into her fifties. A woman living her life “politically” through her creative works as both a person of colour and as a black feminist. But gradually, too, a picture will be built of the life stories of the women she has associated with or can be linked to indirectly. Life choices or opportunities are not the same for all as we rarely start from the same place.
The backdrop to the tales will be London life – the evolving place and diversity of people primarily the wide range of immigrants who will arrive, compromise, settle and build their families here. There will be the pressure (and expense) of big city life, financial restrictions if not poverty itself, often lacking deep community support and watching your children grow through a different experience. Amma and friend Dominique try to live their lives to their political beliefs and ultimately will grow physically apart due to life’s pragmatic choices. Amma will choose motherhood and her daughter will grow to reject her mother’s core beliefs and values (while expecting them to operate automatically for herself – yes, realistically tiresome).
Evaristo’s skill lies in creating a series of vignettes of different women and making them all seem so real. So real that you recognise them, seeing the habits, conversations, tics and annoying behaviour of people you have known – tripping both memories and the instinctive need to talk back to the characters. She skewers the current time with its political, social and cultural tropes and anxieties. But she also cleverly recreates dialogues or concerns of maybe thirty years ago as if they were current, so the routes to now are laid bare.
By showing the women across the generations – from young Yazz, (whatever she might think) largely oblivious to what has gone before and with the impatience of her generation, to Amma and back through her to the women a generation older she shows not just how individuals develop, but also how the cultural “norms” continue to evolve and change; never forgetting how far people who might seem static or retrograde now have travelled already and at what personal cost.
The past is shown to very clearly be the foundations of her characters’ present – even if the younger ones do not recognise this – and that the future will be different so characters (as models of real people) will have to change. The tale is therefore not just a story, but it is a challenge to readers to think about where they are, how they got there and whether they will try and affect their future in greater or lesser ways, or just let it evolve and cope with it.
Hilary White 5/5
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Hamish Hamilton 9780241364901 hbk May 2019