Towards the end of the summer, I was at a loss for what to read before coming to university. Scanning my bookshelf, a colourful cover caught my eye; little did I know that Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo would turn out to be the best book I have read in a long time.
Explaining the structure and plot of this book is a struggle, namely that there isn’t much of either. It simply follows 12 characters, mainly black women, whose lives intertwine as they figure out their purpose and explore their relationships in contemporary society. The lack of punctuation and fluid sentence structure fully immerses the reader into the world of the characters, and once I began reading it was honestly difficult to put down. The book is truly intersectional in that it explores experiences from different social classes, sexualities and ages, as well as dealing with difficult topics such as rape, prejudice and adultery.
The main hook of this novel was how real the characters were. It was truly comforting to encounter human experience and see mistakes being made; it offered an alternative lens to the typical portrayal of feminism in modern media, which can often perpetuate the idea that one must always be on the right side of new feminist theory. This especially struck me through the characters of teacher Shirley and her student Carole; Carole is apathetic toward school at first until Shirley recognises her potential and works her hard, resulting in her achieving a place at Oxford. The reader feels almost frustrated at Carole’s lack of gratefulness towards her mentor, yet a wider consideration of the situation leads us to understand her feelings- any teenage girl would be annoyed at having to put so much effort into a future that is by no means guaranteed. The way in which Evaristo creates so much empathy for every character, no matter their background or actions, is truly remarkable.
Whilst being a true chronicle of the black experience, Girl, Woman, Other also maintains a strong focus on the LGBTQIA+ experience. One could say the ‘main’ character of the novel is newly established playwright Amma, a woman who owns her lesbian identity throughout her story. The reader is in awe of Amma and her daughter Yazz’s truly contemporary lifestyles, as we learn of Amma’s many sexual partners and Yazz’s progressive opinions on her mother’s life. The reader is led to feel a genuine happiness regarding Amma’s success, and appreciates that although it is important to respect the struggles of black women in Britain today, it is also refreshing to see depictions of them flourishing in their fields.
For me, the most poignant of all the individual stories was that of Morgan, a non-binary character who struggles with exploring their gender identity. This was the first time I had read an in depth exploration of the non-binary experience, and the way Morgan used the internet and social media in their journey of discovery served to make it even more authentic. It was touching to see the way Morgan developed their sense of self and made mistakes along the way- a gentle reminder that it’s OK to still be learning both in self expression and in allyship.
Evaristo’s dedication at the front of the book sums up her desired readership; “For the sisters & the sistas & the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn & our brethren & our bredrin & our brothers & our bruvs & our men & our mandem & the LGBTQI+ members of the human family”. Although fiercely feminist and focussed primarily around the female experience, this book can be read by anyone who is looking to broaden their perspective on the black experience in Britain. In my opinion, Girl, Woman, Other is a necessary read for not just empathising with but better understanding the struggles of black women and non-binary individuals in the 21st century. 5 stars!
Featured image: Suzy Yang on The Bubble Photography & Illustration Drive