A Review of Girl, Woman, Other
Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton) 2019
I didn’t think I was going to review this joyous book. It won the Booker Prize which restricts the conversation a bit. What is there left to say? Yet I was fortunate to be in the audience to attend a talk given by the author at the Hay Festival and this changed my mind. So here are my thoughts.
Evaristo’s prose sits on the page in all its poetic wholeness with scarcely a capital letter or full stop to be seen. Yet unlike Woolf who can sometimes leave you scrabbling for a handhold or for a breath, this work flows perfectly like a river out of Eden. It’s not officially stream of consciousness. I have no idea how she did it, but Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her knowledge of scansion must have helped.
The book which in un-Booker-like fashion is not a challenging read, follows the lives of 12 women in modern Britain.
The first question that Peter Florence, the Director and co-founder of Hay Festival who also happened to be Chair of the Booker panel this year asked was: We understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ but what about ‘other’ The reply from Evaristo was that she wanted to show how these women come to be perceived as being ‘other’. What it is about societies that ‘others’ people.
What does it mean to be ‘other’. Race, identity and belonging – the topic that gave birth to a thousand and one theses and to which we can add gender and sexual orientation, are all things which can confuse, emotionally and intellectually. Which of us really knows ourselves? But the author does not seem in the least confused about any of it, getting inside the heads of each of her characters, taking them from childhood to the epiphanic moment when they find a way to be.
It is not just a matter of being black in a society in which to be black meant you could not book a bed for the night because your putative landlady thought your colour might rub off on her sheets (welcome to Great Britain pre-Race Discrimination laws). It is not just a book about having a particular skin colour – to be a woman even in 2019 is to be ‘other’ from the standpoint of many aspects of our societies in which our institutions are still crawling out of Victorian patriarchal attitudes and doing so relatively slowly, changing only when forced to do so by law or scandal or both.
A lot of books (thankfully) are now written by women – some treat of the reality of lived female experience in a modern world. Many do not. Some writers of both sexes add female characters – even strong female characters – as a box ticking exercise or as characters to be exploited in some way by men.
Girl Woman Other is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary literary scene and I am so happy that Evaristo has been recognised.
Elif Shafak. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) 2019
Elif Shafak I regard as one of today’s greatest writers. I loved The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve although I struggled a bit with the Architect’s Apprentice but that’s OK. It was an earlier work and it’s not always possible to love everything.
Leila is the author’s masterwork so far. 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World was on the shortlist for the Man Booker when Bernadine Evaristo won with Margaret Atwood. It must have been an unenviable task to judge this year’s prize.
Like Evaristo, Shafak takes a culture – her culture –and shows us how it excludes, abases and abuses women in a way that is culturally so normal that it is invisible. Such invisibility does not extend to the minds of writers and artists, of course, many of whom are currently subject to persecution in Turkey. In a moving tribute to her grandmother, whose funeral she did not feel able to attend for political reasons, the author says that she felt the fictional character of Leila and her grandmother had met and become good friends:
“… sister-outsiders. After all boundaries of the mind mean nothing for women who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight ….”
Leila, Or Tequila Leila as she is called – is the lead character in 10 minutes 38 seconds. ‘Is’ I say. Not ‘was’. It’s important to Leila to be counted among the present tense, we find that out in the prologue before the story proper even starts. The reason being that she is dead by the time the story starts. She still narrates the story. Raped by her uncle as a child (and blamed – look what you made me do) her life slowly falls apart. She ends up working in a brothel in Istanbul. But life is regenerated in a human and beautiful fashion by a strange and curious circle of friends that come into being. Shafak’s storytelling seems to me second to none in so many ways but her characters are particularly wonderful. Magic realist, perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless.
“Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death. People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that. Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’ If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”
I believe in the permeability of that sandstone. And the book’s ending is a celebration of freedom.