The Reading List: Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo, 2019

Cover of Girl, Woman, Other, with a black silhouette of a woman's head, wearing a brightly coloured headscarf, against a yellow background.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Moving exploration of women’s stories and experiences

Well, what can I say? I adored this book! I’m once again very late to the game as I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out (don’t worry, I haven’t read The Testaments either!). I finally got round to buying it on Kindle, and I’m so glad I did. I don’t even have that much to say about it, I just want to encourage you to read it.

Any one of these stories could be worked up into a novel in its own right

Evaristo richly lays out the lives of twelve women in the UK, covering from present day back to the late 19th century. I can imagine people wanting to use the word ‘tapestry’ to describe this book, but really it is more like a relay race. The characters are all connected to some extent, but this isn’t the main point of the plot. We don’t discover that they’ve all been in the same car crash, or dated the same person (sometimes quite a similar experience) or anything like that. It’s more a way of drawing out a sense of each individual, and the small changes and chances that can lead to big differences in our lives. We see how their stories, politics and experiences differ from one another, where they face the same discrimination in different guises, and so on. The protagonists are all women or non-binary people of colour, and with only very minor exceptions the novel is told exclusively through the stories of those women. I can’t tell you how weirdly refreshing it was just to have a modern book devoid of male perspectives. To have these women’s stories so insightfully and sensitively told. I can’t imagine how meaningful it must be for black British women to be getting this kind of representation.

Any one of these stories could be worked up into a novel in its own right, but Evaristo shows admirable restraint in how much of their lives she chooses to show us – in leaving us with just enough. We may want to know more about some of the characters, but we don’t need to know more, so she leaves them, and moves on. Each time we changed character I felt a bit disappointed, sad to be parting with characters I had so quickly come to love. But each time I soon fell for the next woman.

There is no one type of woman, one politics, one life on show in these stories: we move across the class spectrum and across the country, encountering women all fighting for their place in the world. It is undeniably a feminist book; some of the characters are not particularly feminist or ‘woke’, but the novel’s engagement with their politics and societal struggles most certainly is.

Each story is a heartfelt and convincing argument for the need for an anti-racist, intersectional, and self-aware feminism

One issue I sometimes have with novels that have an openly feminist stance is that they can feel a bit like reading a Twitter thread or a Medium post. Like reading an article on Everday Feminism. You’re reading the kind of thoughts and ideas that, if you engage with feminist media, you’re seeing all the time (I found this a little with the blog sections of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah). It feels a bit like, in my case, preaching to the converted. But Evaristo goes beyond this, bringing human stories to bear which show the truth behind where these ideas come from. Each story individually, and together as a collection, is a heartfelt and convincing argument for the need for an anti-racist, intersectional, and self-aware feminism. No one woman is set up as the feminist ideal; they all have their flaws, and room for improvement (as do we all as readers).

More than anything, Girl, Woman, Other, is just a great set of stories. You’re won over by characters who are subtly and humanely presented, in a novel that above all teaches empathy. We cannot know one another’s experiences – what has led us to behave the way we do – and we should always try to act with empathy and understanding. By telling the stories of these radically different but connected women, Evaristo captures something of the wealth and breadth of human experience, and helps us to understand the impact of our society on the women who make it up.

Have you read Girl, Woman, Other? What did you think? I’d like to write a post on each of the characters, they all felt so subtle and real to me, but that will have to wait for another day. I haven’t read any of Evaristo’s other work, but if this is what they’re like then I’m going to have to find them! I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections in the comments.

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