Girl, Woman, Other
(Black Cat / Grove Atlantic, 2019)
Roughly three quarters into Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker prizewinner, we encounter the only protagonist who doesn’t identify as a woman. Till then the novel’s whipped up a Girl’s Only mosh, in which the DJ’s mix—infectious, ballin’—samples tunes from slave times to tomorrow’s charts. But then we meet Megan, eventually Morgan, “self-identified as gender-free.” The transformation ends up investing her/them with surprising power, so that the adult Morgan helps to pull off some of this big book’s final, and splendid, cavorting. Before then, though, while they’re still Megan, seemingly cis, they have problems not just with their gender, but their ethnicity: “part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English.” To tick off her elements like that “felt weird... because essentially she was just a complete human being.”
The passage seems to me a capsule containing all the vitamins and minerals that fuel this rambunctious and hydra-headed creation. Indeed, isn’t Megan’s reflection a blurry echo of Evaristo’s title: Girl, Woman, Other? All three categories find embodiment, one way or another, in each of the 12 primary characters. Their IDs are all British, and their DOB’s render them contemporary, but a number of these women hold a second passport, and their ages range from the teens to the 90s. Each strikes a different angle towards the novel’s central event, the opening of new play at London’s National. The drama seems fitting, too: a phantasmagoria of Dahomey Amazons.
“Amazon” could well turn up in the DNA for the playwright, Amma, given her blend of Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Scottish. The genetic mashup is typical, among Evaristo’s characters, but nonetheless the playwright launches the novel like a firecracker. Amma has spent “decades on the fringe,” a flag-waving lesbian doing hard-core agitprop. A list of her early titles includes FGM: The Musical, and if you don’t recognize the initials, this probably excludes you from the woman’s core audience (try Google). Still, anyone can enjoy Amma’s pluck, clawing her way to the Big Time while wearing “peroxide dreadlocks trained to stick up like candles on a birthday cake.” Likewise eye-popping is her snark, whether the subject’s her unapologetic polyamory or the gentrification of her beloved Brixton. The neighborhood used to be a punk stronghold (there’s even a Clash song), but these days the punks have gone bougie. Amma’s the mother of 19-year-old, Yazz, a child of privilege though she wears a wild ‘fro. Yazz has two donor-fathers, both gay and artistic, but one ascended to moneyed heights.
The daughter is the next to take over the novel, and she’s seen mostly with “her uni squad, the Unfuckwithables.” Snap! Yet smart-mouthed Yazz also suffers growing pains— quandaries of color and status. Thank God she has recourse to the subtle thinking of Roxanne Gay, cited in another comic, challenging exchange. Still, her reading can’t extricate the novel’s girl, the youngest major player, from wrangles that will make her a woman. The turmoil percolates through her wit, just as her mother’s never blind to the ironies of her renegade posturing. Both characters are intimately familiar with the pang of feeling outside oneself: the Other.
That familiarity is what I’d emphasize. Myself, I love what’s outré and of-the-moment about Girl, Woman, Other. I was at once won over by its fast and loose way with the English sentence, quasi-colloquial, with minimal punctuation and capitalization, sometimes breaking down into short stacks of single lines. Yet it doesn’t take an aesthete to find the prose accessible. Anyone can appreciate Evaristo’s sensitivity to the passions in her people. Case in point, a woman poles apart from Amma or Yazz, a refugee Nigerian who works cleaning offices:
that night she dreamed of employing an army of woman cleaners who would set forth across the planet on a mission to clean up all the damage done to the environment they came from all over Africa and North and South America, they came from India and China....
she imagined them all descending in their millions on the Niger Delta and driving out the oil companies with their mop and broom bundles transformed into spears and poison-tipped swords....
It’s the Revenge of the Dahomey Amazons, if in very different form from the one onstage. The visions of a hetero stay-at-home matter as much as the glittery doings in the West End, and indeed matter most to Evaristo’s accomplishment. In her solid handful of a text, Amma and Yazz occupy only a pinch, and when her other figures in the frieze terrify, or break the heart, it’s generally someone like this floor-scrubbing Bummi, or the harried schoolteacher Shirley. When it comes to sex, they too can spring surprises. The most remarkable protagonist may be the farm-owner Hattie, mixed-race and long married, happily, to an African-American GI. Now in her 90s, Hattie remains at home with the cows and the crops, yet it’s she who unearths slave-trading skeletons out of the past, who forges an honest friendship with the trans Morgan, and who may serve as the novel’s Great Mother: “this metal-haired wild creature from the bush with piercingly feral eyes.”
The creature who gave us Hattie, to judge from all the recent news coverage, was at her most autobiographical in the opening chapters. The 61-year-old Evaristo, her father Nigerian and mother British, started out in fringe theater and considered herself lesbian. Since then she’s taken a husband and raised their children, bolstering whatever she earned from writing with a university job. In the States, her work has been hard to find; her last, Mr. Loverman, appeared on the indie press Akashic. Now, however, we see how that novel’s title character anticipates the imaginative range of its followup—he’s a closeted gay Antiguan in his 70s. Such expansiveness of spirit, rather than any alertness to the cutting edge, counts as this author’s crucial talent. In Girl, Woman, Other, once in a long while I found the stacked one-liners a tad simple, falling back on typography when what’s needed is investigation, and one of her men struck me as cartoonish. But all the other guys, even the bad guys, came across with rich and loquacious humanity. Overall this novel asserts a classic mastery, equal to the best of Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante, authors themselves out of pariah groups and difficult upbringings. I daresay such artists are creating, in rare new colors, the great social canvas of the century’s first half.