Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Before I start; I have to make a couple of confessions about this book review.

Firstly, I did not properly ‘read’ the book I used an audio book. Sometimes this might only be a minor detail but here its is much more significant. The author uses very idiosyncratic punctuation and line spacing (as well as icons at the start of chapters). The effect of this was lost upon me as it was not perceptible in the audio book. It is possible some readers will gain some insights from these stylistic effects but when I started to read the book, in a conventional way, I didn’t find they added. Rather, they were slightly irritating, hence my decision to use an audio book. It is possible, had I persevered, that I may have got more from the text. However, ever since e.e. cummings I have always had a suspicion that devices such as these are a cover for a deeper lack of skill. Even George Bernard Shaw with his new alphabet never managed to improve his prose or by communication by using idiosyncratic developments in writing.

Secondly; I am not a member of the target demographic. As an old, white, heterosexual cis-male I am pretty sure the book was not written with my purchase in mind. However, I don’t tend to read books that are about me, or people like me; I already know about that. What I want to read is of other people and circumstances I haven’t had to deal with. So that I can understand more of the world and possibly change and develop. Thus I tend to read the big book award winners (She won the Booker jointly with Margaret Attwood for this book) whether or not they seem aimed at my part of the reading population. This usually works well and has lead me to discover many books I would otherwise have missed. This strategy may not have worked as well here. It is not that this book was not aimed at the likes of me but rather that it had a very particular audience in mind and I was not it. This audience may well like this book a great deal more than I did for reasons that will become clear.

The first thing that is clear is that Bernadie Evaristo is a very skilled writer. She is adept at description and can create scenes which carry a great punch and are very evocative.She manages to hold twelve stories together well and weave them cleverly into each other in a way that is both interesting and natural. The dialogue that she writes has an honesty and accuracy which helps carry the stories along and the whole thing has a light and lively feel. She handles a lot of characters, of varying age and social class but this is not altogether a success.

The characters are overdrawn to the extent of becoming caricatures. These are the icons of Vogue Magazine and the Guardian newspaper. They felt like stereotypes and charicatures rather than real people at times. This was rather like “Mills & Boon” for the people who attend parties in London hosted by Bonnie Greer and Afua Hirsch. Middle class metropolitans working in the arts might fantasize about Amazonian, lesbian, writer-directors, or men like Riefenstahl’s Masai warriors whose “eyes looked into my soul”, much as the more plebeian reader of romance novels fantasises about Cliff, the chisel jawed surgeon, who, after saving the baby, wraps the heroine in his strong arms. Again, I am wary, because although I found these characters rather two dimensional this might reflect my distance from their world, rather than the writing. Other readers might find those characters had more heft.

The male characters, who I might be able to appreciate better, were rarely little more than “pollinators“. When a male character was developed it was usually in a negative sense as a rapist, an abuser or an absent father. Though thankfully there was some appreciation of the horrendous toll that racism has taken on black men through the ages. However, overall, there was a tint of misandry, but this was painted with a fairly light brush. Unfortunately, the male characters were even less well developed, and none developed sufficiently to feel like a real person to the reader. They were never true individuals, simply the gremlins and demons in the fairy stories.

I can see why this appealed to the judges and I can see that this is a book by an author with talent. Some will also enjoy the novelty of the punctuation. Unfortunately, however, I fear that by overdrawing the characters and situations we are left with stories with little nuance and little explanation. A day spent reading the Guardian or New York Times would be just as revealing.