My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So, I need to make apparent the bleeding obvious disclosure, right from the beginning, that I am white, male, of the professional class, very firmly heterosexual and (regrettably) pushing too close to 50. All of which, more or less, disqualify me as a (stereo)typical reviewer for Evaristo’s astonishing novel. I don’t say this as an apology in advance, but merely one that admits that I am well aware that my experience of this book will be very different from someone female, or black, or young, or any combination of these and other characteristics.
The prevalence of a range of relevant prejudices in society today makes it necessary to state all that. But, in the ‘ivory tower’ world of idealism and reason, it shouldn’t be at all important. I wouldn’t read a review of, say, a Thomas Hardy novel by a young black woman and think, even for a second, that she had no right to comment as she can’t possibly understand a white British male author, nor appreciate the world in which the novel sits. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if she wrote from a completely different perspective – and this is supremely important.
It isn’t wrong then, for this white guy to make his comments, but I will try to be sensible of people’s feelings and sensitivities in doing so. At least I do have this in my favour: I’m British, as are most of the characters in the book. Many of the attitudes, settings, events and situations then, I have at least some understanding of, and in a few cases, some experience.
There is no shadow of a doubt that Bernadine Evaristo is a brilliant writer and that ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ deserves all the accolades and awards poured upon it. There are few books dealing with British black issues which have reached the mainstream in quite the way Evaristo has managed. She does so by a clever interweaving of a multitude of characters with almost as many themes – such as children, grief, love, careers, friendship and sexuality. This is a valuable book, from this point of view.
But on a personal note, I found the book unbearable. Every character, more or less, I found to be ugly in one form or another. In part, this is because life is ugly, and the problems Evaristo deals with are very real and she doesn’t shirk away from this. But much of it is simply that these characters are just ugly inside. There’s virtually no sense of selflessness, common humanity, positivity or warmth from any of them. Indeed, in many ways, this novel feels like it is telling multiple life versions of the same character, just put in a different situation and given a different name. There was very little variation of personality and precious little let-up from the god-awfulness of it all. Each one seems to judge, condemn or snidely dismiss more or less anyone they come across, and especially each other.
My golden rule, as I always say, is ‘do I care about the characters after the last page is turned?’ For ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ the answer is ‘no, I’ll be glad if I never see or hear of these ones again!’ This sounds like harsh criticism and, to an extent, it is; but it is also testament to the author’s ability to throw us into such realistic settings of life, and simultaneously critical of my own desire to escape such things (and certainly such people) when I read fiction. I get enough of this in real life. I’ll be damned if I’m going to indulge too much in it with my fantasy one.
In many respects, the book reminds of the film ‘Crash’ (I’m guessing it was based on a book itself, but I’ve not read it). That too, was full of ugly characters, intersecting with each other and delving into a myriad of themes. There too, I found myself thinking it was a brilliant and necessary piece of art, but I’d never watch it again – once was enough. the difference though is that ‘Crash’ gave room for characters to shine for at least some of the time. Even the most horrific character got his moment of grace. There’s no ‘truly awful’ characters in ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ but nor do any of them really have that chance to shine positively.
The exception is the end, which I won’t spoil here other than to say that had there been more of this throughout the book, I might well have found it flawless. I got my little fix of – if not a ray, at least a glimmer – of sunshine. Otherwise, I really didn’t want to be in the company of such people and that made it hard to sympathise (let alone empathise) with them despite the very real situations described and the urgency to give voice to those who face these every day as part of their ‘normal’ lives too.
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ then is a brilliant but difficult book. It is one I instinctively feel women will ‘get’ much more easily than I did, but it is also not for those who like fully-rounded characters. Just as I felt these characters were really just the same one re-dressed, so too they all felt very much ‘city folk’ – London, at that. The joke, that no one speaks to each other on the tube and that people don’t smile or are nice to each other in the UK’s capital, is a stereotype, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a basis in reality (it certainly matches my experience of Londoners). You can’t write off a city like that, of course, but in many ways that’s just what these characters do. You will either like that or, like me, you’ll find that just too hard to deal with.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.