Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) won the Booker Prize that year (along with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments), a well-deserved honor. It was also Roxane Gay’s favorite book of 2019 and one of Barack Obama’s favorites as well.
As a novel, it has a fascinating structure, primarily consisting of chapters each centered on one of twelve people, mostly British women of color. The most interesting thing is that a secondary character in one chapter becomes the primary character in the next. In this way, you could consider it to be both a contemporary and a historical novel, as several chapters are focused on the early lives of characters who are now elderly or who have died but played a significant role in another chapter.
I first listened to it as an audiobook, narrated by Anna-Maria Nabirye, who does a great job with the varied accents–from Caribbean to Nigerian to the accents found in different parts of Great Britain. But I also borrowed a print copy because there’s something about seeing the words written that is satisfying in a different way. What I didn’t realize while listening is that the written structure of the book is more like poetry, with few periods and the sentences separated by lines instead of punctuation.
We meet Amma, a fifty-something lesbian theatre director, her nineteen year old daughter Yazz and her squad, followed by a banker, teachers, a house cleaner, a grocery-store manager with three kids, a nonbinary social media influencer, a farmer, and their lovers, mothers, fathers, husbands, and children. All are connected with the African diaspora in some way, living in Great Britain or having been raised there. Evaristo connects their stories masterfully, leading to a wondrous twist and reveal at the very end. The event connecting many of the characters is Amma’s play opening at the National, the pinnacle of a career that began with Amma’s motto being “on our own terms, or not at all.”
I loved it, although there was a bit of fatphobia. Much less than many British novels, but diet culture being the water we swim in, the fatphobia was mild. In Amma’s chapter, in a list of drinks she refers to vodka as having “fewer calories” than wine, and to herself as having “African hips and thighs” and differing between a size “12 or 14 that week.” (US size 10 or 12) In a later chapter, a couple of veteran teachers giggle when they see after a few years teaching that one who had been a size 6 when she started, showed up with “elasticated waist” pants. And Yazz, thinking about taking an older man as a lover, decides not to when she imagines the “potbelly” he might have.
But, there were also some fat-positive aspects, primarily in Bummi’s chapter. She was born in Nigeria and emigrated to the UK with her husband. After he died, she opened up her own cleaning business and described one of her clients, Penelope (who is the subject of another chapter) as wearing “ill-fitting clothes to hide her substantial womanliness” and couldn’t understand why English women did not “show off the outline of their fulsomeness,” as in her culture “a substantial woman was a desirable one.” Later, Bummi becomes attracted to one of her employees, and when their relationship becomes physical, “they both had generous folds of flesh and luxurious breasts;” her lover had attractively fleshy arms. . . thick, dimpled thighs . . . ample, delectacble hips . . . with the stretchmarks Bummi thought looked like art and felt like Braille.” Unfortunately, Bummi could not get over the shame she learned growing up about this “unmentionable thing that she did” and broke it off with her lover.
Overall, I’d highly recommend it. The fat-positive aspects outweighed the fatphobic parts, and the way Evaristo included and centered women of all ages, sizes, colors, social classes, sexual orientations and gender identities, including nonbinary, was truly impressive.