Our Shared Shelf book club read is the co-winner of the 2019 prestigious Booker prize and won, amongst many others, the Orwell Prize for political fiction and was awarded the Fiction book of the year for 2020 by the British Book Awards.
After reading it, we know exactly why it has won all these accolades and we attempt in less than a thousand words to give a review of this heavy literary piece of work, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Published by Penguin Random House UK, 2020.pp 452.
Review by Miriama Suraki
This is not a familiar world that Ms Evaristo brings us to. Although the places her characters inhabit may be our normal haunts – Peckham, Soho, Brixton- and the music they listen to (which is cracking by the way – you can listen here) may even match our own playlist, however the challenges faced by her 12 characters are pretty uphill compared to ours.
Evaristo dissects intersectionality between sexuality, gender, economic status and blackness; and there is a lot to unpack in this book which is impossible to do justice to in one post. The book centres on 12 female characters of black heritage as a nod to the Dahomey Amazons, the all female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey. The main lead, Amma is a playwright and the book culminates in the opening of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, which brings all these characters together.
Sometimes the things the characters say reminded me of what my parents told me and it’s interesting to see migrant families having this conversation within their homes decades later, for instance when Bummi ‘consoled’ her daughter who, after being offered a place at Oxford was finding it difficult to fit in. She dabbed tissues on Carole’s eyes and said, ” …. have I raised a fighter or a quitter? you must return to university and get your degree by hook or crook or I cannot vouch for the consequences of my actions.”
This book is intelligent, eccentric and is in a league of it’s own in its art form. Three things stood out for me and they are highlighted below.
Evaristo uses various West African symbols (Adinkra) to introduce her characters. They relate to each of the women’s character and how they relate to the protagonist. The best friend, Dominique, is introduced by the Teeth and Tongue motif which is the symbol of friendship and interdependence. POWERFUL. And the friendship between the women is beautifully woven throughout the book.
This symbol on the right is that of strength and power and is used for Amma, the protagonist, a daughter of a Scottish- Nigerian mum and a socialist Ghanaian dad.
It’s quite a fitting symbol really for a lady who grew up in beautiful Peckham where the plantains are £1.20 for three and stop & search by police is free…and frequent. She is now a powerful figure on the London Art scene but to get there she had to first find herself on Elaine’s bumpy sofa in Brixton.
Punctuation: No end; and no “she said, he said.”
There are no speech marks and little full stops. Last year, Su Elliot of Inkbone Fine Arts, had taught me this writing style of foregoing punctuations and it isn’t the easiest writing style to adopt but it lends a poetic feel to the whole read. The lack of speech marks makes reading a bit harder as I had to place the speech within the narrative but after a while one gets used to this style.
Some commentators on Goodread have said that this is deliberately done by the author to resemble twitter posts. This style works for the chapter on transitioning Morgan/Megan whose enlightenment came by way of her interactions through the internet with Bibi.
I personally loved that Evaristo flies in the face of convention for both the number of characters she opted to highlight, and not having proper ends in her sentences. She trusted our intelligence to handle her writing style…and a big middle figure up to conventional writing. These are lives of black women she is writing about so they will not fit perfectly within our idea of perfect thank you very much!!
Bummi complained that people viewed her through what she did (a cleaner) and not what she was (an educated woman
They did not know that curled up inside her was a parchment certificate proclaiming her a graduate of the Department of Mathematicspg 167, Girl, Woman, Other
A Polyphonic Novel- Please don’t ask me what this means.
The cover of the book has a review by The New York Times which reads, ‘Polyphonic and deeply humane, Evaristo has a gift for appraising the lives of her characters with sympathy and grace while skewering their pretensions.’
I had to google the meaning of polyphonic and still don’t have the slightest idea. This is one of the best definitions I got:
“The polyphonous novel reflects new technology, plays with it, reflects on it, rails against it. Voice is no longer a metaphor. Form, format, genre and multimedia have extended its meaning to encompass more than just the author’s style or persona. The postmodern polyphonic novel allows a multitasking operation which deliberately flouts authorial control or linguistic stability, celebrates discord and irruption of any monologic voice.” (link to this article below).
To break this down into a language I understand:
a) this novel is polyphonous because it uses its form (lack of punctuations) to reflect technology (twitter),
b) it is polyphonic because it allows for a seamless transition for readers between the book and technology. Readers now multi-task so this helps one to scroll through IG while finishing up page 312 where Megan shaves off her hair and becomes Morgan, and
c) its polyphonicity (my made up word) comes from the fact that Evaristo deliberately flouts authorial control or linguistic stability. She can, she really can cause she is after all the Professor in Creative Writing at Brunel University London…She owns the creative joint!
As for ‘skewering their pretensions,’ Evaristo shreds this so gently when she introduces Yazz’s dad who is the acceptable black voice on the BBC and Carole who likes to listen to Vivaldi’s four seasons because it makes her appear classy (ouch- I love four seasons!). She also introduces us to words afro-gynocentricism, quivergender, gender confirmation (which by the way is not a gender reveal party thrown for expectant mothers).
There you have it Book Club readers. I hope you have enjoyed reading our book for the first quarter of 2021. As said before, reading it was like wading into an unfamiliar world of words, styles and deals with heavy issues on being a black woman in the UK.
However, it has been a good book to start the year with because good books are meant to challenge, teach and take you to unfamiliar places. This book did that and by the time I put it down, not only had a few new brain cells been activated but there was also a deeper appreciation – a piquing of curiosity -of the places, people, smells and sounds of places in London and around the UK. I now look at people and I constantly wonder now of the parchments curled up inside them and their stories just waiting to be told.
- As you know we collaborate with Leonora Sinclair on this Book club and she also gives her perspectives which is always refreshing. You can head over to the MAUK page or to her Career Coaching Website to her review on the same.
- For more info on Polyphonic novel read: https://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/wip-editions/articles/writing-the-polyphonic-novel.html
- Also special call to our readers to help support our independent bookshops as much as possible. Totally get that Amazon is cheaper but if we can help a local bookstore stay afloat this year we simply must. Please check your local indie bookshop close to you on http://www.indiebookshops.com/indie-bookshops-uk-and-ireland/