Sunday, May 03, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Amma's new play is opening at the National Theatre; she's torn about being part of the establishment after years of railing against it. Yazz is Amma's daughter, just as passionate and campaigning but of a different generation. Dominique used to be Amma's business partner but got caught up in an abusive relationship.

Carole has a senior role in banking after a troubled childhood; her husband invested in Amma's play. Bummi is Carole's mum and struggles with what she sees as her daughter's abandonment of their heritage. LaTisha was a school-mate of Carole's and has also turned her life round, but in very different ways.

Shirley was Carole and LaTisha's teacher and is Amma's boring friend. Winsome is Shirley's mum, who worked hard to give her children opportunities. Penelope is a colleague of Shirley's and was initially hostile to her but they've become allies over time and through adversity.

Megan/Morgan is a young trans man with a huge following on social media, has met Yazz before and - by coincidence - is in the audience of Amma's new play. Hattie is Morgan's 93 year-old grandmother who has - we come to realise - a connection to Penelope. Grace was Hattie's mum, who overcame numerous tragedies but died young.

After chapters devoted to each of these 12 women in turn, we catch up with some of them at the opening night of Amma's play, and then an epilogue makes a further connection. Following these myriad connections, the same events can seem completely different. But the real revelations are in understanding how these people got to where they are. There are secrets, abuses, horrible and haunting stuff, and yet this is a book about struggles that overcome difficulty, prejudice, tragedy.

Evaristo makes each of her characters vivid and real - not only the 12 principle players but the supporting characters, including the legion of men who shape these women's lives. I felt I knew these people, and there's a thrill of excitement when a connection is made and a window opened on the life of what we thought was a passing acquaintance. These people are complex, contradictory, some hold objectionable views or do awful things. Most are just trying to get by. And because we come to understand them, we admire their resilience and we share their joy.

Along the way, Evaristo covers a lot of ground - the history of feminism, changing attitudes to race and sexuality, stuff about class and property and entitlement, a whole miso-mash of culture. Many of her characters rant, but she frequently punctures pomposity by having other people yawn or answer back. The result is it feels deceptively light and agile, but is heavyweight.

I admit I was deceived to begin with and couldn't understand the fuss. But by halfway I was hooked, and can see why this won last year's Booker Prize (along with Margaret Attwood's The Testament.) It's made me think a lot about identity, my own and other people's, and how what we are - or think ourselves to be - can define how others see us and what we are able to do.

This is also a perfect book for lockdown: 12 separate people, thinking over their lives in isolation but connected to each other. They flourish when they communicate, when they are honest and kind. It's a book about tolerance, acceptance and how we endure. The struggle is long but we'll get there.

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