You Are What You Read: Girl, Woman, Other


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Image by Penguin Books Ltd, 2019

By Cara Lee

Winner of The Booker Prize in 2019, Girl, Woman, Other has been perching precariously at the top of my to-read pile for a while now. Undoubtedly, the novel and the writer, Bernadine Evaristo, deserve all the accolades and praise bestowed upon them.

Spanning a period of several decades, Evaristo’s portrayal of an often-underrepresented picture of Black British life is immensely important. As such, it is a crucial choice for the You Are What You Read series, not merely for its detailed biographies but because it is so relevant and reflective of society right now. It is both fiction and history.

Its modernity is important; Evaristo condemns the cultural and political policies and people halting societal evolution, often lacing her remarks with wit. The lines “it’s so crazy that the disgusting perma-tanned billionaire has set a new intellectual and moral low by being president of America”, shortly after acknowledging how the Brexit leave vote is “making fascism fashionable again” are starkly harrowing and will stick with me for a while.

Girl, Woman, Other begins with Amma’s narrative who becomes, in a way, the protagonist, linking the subsequent eleven biographies together through her production of The Last Amazon of Dahomey at the National Theatre. Evaristo’s writing has a beautiful circularity to it, similar in style to Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and White Teeth, which illustrates how permeated our lives are by the extensiveness of our family trees and social circles.

Amma is not the only connecting piece of this puzzle, as the patriarchy unites the characters too.  Each story highlights how the societal patriarchal structures can manifest, with the characters either submitting to it or revolting against it. Moreover, reading a novel written by a woman, based primarily on women and their struggles and joys was refreshing.

The intersectionality of Girl, Woman, Other is also important; race is a significant part of the novel but so too are class, sexuality and the meaning of gender, and how these are ‘othered’ in society.  The scale and scope of characteristics, traits and personalities means Girl, Woman, Other is well suited to the You Are What You Read series, since it incorporates so many walks of life – it would be near impossible to not relate to at least one of the characters.

Evaristo’s writing style is poetic, almost lyrical, and the stories flow like waves because of this. There is a lulling, lilting feel to the prose, almost as though we can hear time slipping past. As well as taking place in different years, the stories span a wide range of places too; we begin in London with Amma, but the novel quickly disperses as Yazz goes to university and Dominique moves to America with her coercive radical feminist girlfriend whom Amma dubs a ‘swamp-diva-voodoo-queen’.

We meet many of the characters again in the final chapter of the novel, at the afterparty of Amma’s production. It felt like welcoming back old friends, as over the course of the novel you are completely immersed into the history, struggles, joys and growth of each character – picture the first night out again in York after months, and you’ll understand the expectant, nostalgic, hedonistic feel of this chapter.

Girl, Woman, Other is the first of Bernadine Evaristo’s novels that I’ve read, but it’s safe to say it won’t be the last. The search for identity established in its many forms is profound and whether we relate to the ‘discovered’ identity or not, the process is undeniably shared. Stories such as Girl, Woman, Other need to be told, and we have a duty to read them.