Girl, Woman, Other is one of those books which you guess on the first page, and know halfway through, will become a landmark on the map of your emotional life. Certain moments of reading it will go into the select mental collection marked ‘unforgettable’ because they made your heart swell or your eyes well. The entire episode of reading, the 20-minute snatches and the longer stints bound together in one racing picture, will be logged in memory as a time and emotional space of its own—a hiatus from real life in which that novel was working its spell on you, overriding everything else, subordinating your own feelings to those of the characters whose lives you were sharing.
Opening the lovely cover of this prize winner (I’ve shown the physical book to everyone I’ve video-called recently, as evidence that this is a beautiful book in every sense I can express), its subtly fragmented layout immediately pulled me into its beat. Evaristo’s formal innovation isn’t loud: she breaks her text into chunks close enough to paragraphs to read easily as continuous prose, but free enough from the constraints of lineation to energise the storytelling and allow for poetic moments when lines are placed on their own, or a series of thoughts pile in a column rather than a prose run, as when calm observation breaks down into its emotional impact:
he stopped telling her how devastatingly beautiful she was when previously he said it several times a day
she realised how addictive it had become
without it she craved it
and felt ugly
or when the form’s ‘hold on a second’ imperative strongly undercuts internalised victim-blaming:
wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
she should have stayed and talked to him about it
he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no
or that she drove him so crazy with desire
which was kind of flattering
and he couldn’t stop
And that style which immediately drew me in and relaxed me propelled me, on day two, through the second long chapter, from which I emerged after a hundred pages in one sitting, face stained with tears, bursting for the toilet and stomach rumbling, declaring that I needed to take a break, before diving hungrily back in ten minutes later.
Opening as it does with dazzling, loveable, unconventional Amma who relives her days of starting out in theatre as she looks forward to her latest play opening at the National Theatre that evening, I should have known that this novel would capture my heart like the Mrs Dalloway to which its London setting, its older opening protagonist, its build-up towards a party at which the solo characters unite, its reminiscence and nostalgia, its exploration of sexuality, all subtly allude.
More than a cliched emotional rollercoaster, this book is a journey through what it means to live and love through loss, hurt, mistreatment, abuse, through flaws in yourself and those closest to you, through the everyday realities of racism, capitalism, sexism, xenophobia, misogyny. It’s about rising above, making your way in the world, growing up, finding your place and your people. It’s about leaving but also returning, abandonment but also support, betrayal but also loyalty, accepting yourself and those around you but also recognising what you can’t live with—and about how those dichotomies can become complicated. Its spectrum of voice and experience is broad, ranging through diverse identities of race, gender, sexuality, age, class, occupation, and ambition, but its enduring third-person narrative voice, always permeated by the free indirect discourse of one of the dozen women whose story it is telling, focalises the shared experiences of Britain or womanhood or love or sex which cross identity categories, refusing to homogenise but determined to assert what binds us. Like its title, this book simultaneously speaks to the shared female experience of exclusion and difference—being othered as a girl or woman—and recognises the restrictions of that category of shared identity—in the racist logic of a post-colonial society, skin colour increases the otherness and objectification of certain women, and the designations of girl and woman reinforce one side of a rigid gender binary into whose miscellaneous category we dismiss too many people’s experience.
Moving through life trajectories in detailed and beautifully-realised snapshots, Girl, Woman, Other balances the significance of life spans with the intimacy of vivid consciousness. Documenting how we work and act in relationships, how we build love or break it, how men behave and how women feel, and always, always, returning to family bonds through the maternal line, it got me thinking a lot about past, present, and future relationships, especially the ones which will span all three. First and foremost, this book is dedicated to showing you what a woman’s inner life looks like, whether or not that overlaps with universal experience, as one granddaughter recognises in a subtly metafictional moment:
I want to know your stories to pass on to Madison when she’s older, Nana, I want to know what it was like when you were a person in your own right
But it doesn’t, can’t, won’t separate this from women’s experience in the world. Nana is flattered, encouraged to tell her stories, but recognises with realism rather than self-effacement that:
she never has been, first she was a daughter, then a wife and mother, and now also a grandmother and great-grandmother
A woman, that is, is a person in her own right with unique subjectivity but unbreakable, defining bonds of relation and love and experience, living through girlhood and womanhood to become something other, something beyond the two which transcends general categories, or moving constantly throughout life between the three possibilities. I like that.