There are a hundred reasons why novelist Bernardine Evaristo’s book Girl, Woman, Other should have won the 2019 Man Booker Prize and, equally, there are a hundred reasons why it should not have. Since it did, though — sharing the award with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments — one should be generous and graceful and focus predominantly on why it impressed a finicky and often divided jury. A sweeping panoramic vision of the lives of several interconnected women of colour, the novel always emotively, occasionally passionately, portrays the struggles faced by British women of varying ethnicities and sexualities in order to survive in what remains a cruelly racist world.

The novel is framed on both ends by an episode in the story of Amma, a talented lesbian playwright whose remarkable text, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens to great critical acclaim. Amma’s narrative sets the tone — both stylistically and thematically — for the rest of the book. Readers who prefer more traditional grammar will no doubt be frustrated by the absence of capital letters in the text — especially at the commencement of sentences — but one gets used to this because Evaristo, a seasoned novelist, writes with clarity and focus. The stories of Amma’s daughter, Yazz (by a sperm donor and pretentious professor), Amma’s lesbian friend, Dominique, and sundry others follow, creating a metaphoric chain of women who join hands in solidarity in order to celebrate sisterhood, motherhood, sexuality, transgender relations and their collective triumph over the oppressions of patriarchal history.

Evaristo leaves no stone unturned when it comes to representations of female diversity. On one end of the spectrum is Carole, who overcame an underprivileged background in order to study mathematics at Oxford, become a successful London banker and marry into the traditional British upper classes. However, the fact that Carole’s husband resembles a golden retriever more than a red-blooded male will not escape the notice of even Evaristo’s less perceptive readers. On the other end of Evaristo’s personal rainbow is a transsexual named Megan, who — as she transforms into the more ‘butch’ Morgan — finds happiness with Bibi, a transgender female of Indian descent.

Had it not won the Booker Prize, Bernardine Evaristo’s novel would still have entered the literary canon based on its manifold merits

Great-grandmothers of advanced age, decades removed from menopause, as well as women barely out of their teens obsessed with body image, are represented with equal sympathy while elite Egyptian hijabis are given as much time and consideration as dowdy, frumpy schoolteachers who make it their personal business to both visualise and actualise academic success stories such as Carole’s above. The writer did not need to spell out her admiration for ancient matriarchal tribes such as the famous Amazons — the text itself is a veritable Amazonian community — where, aside from genetic material, the men generally are expected to provide very little, although a couple of fishermen, following the trade of the great St Peter, do make significant cameo appearances.

Evaristo, herself a British woman of part-Nigerian, part-white background, dramatically emphasises over the course of the novel that race, sexuality and, indeed, even gender are far more complex and fluid constructs than the pre-21st century patriarchy would have us believe. At the same time, she cautions against radicalism that leads to extremes, even within allegedly inclusive societies. Some of the book’s most disturbing violence is not evident from historic lynching (to which Evaristo donates a couple of cursory paragraphs), but from domestic violence perpetrated in a “wimmin’s space” community in the United States. What is especially frightening is the psychological and bodily harm one woman can cause to another; this underscores that unequal power relations are a much more formidable enemy than possessors of the Y chromosome. But the doom and gloom is aptly balanced out by an abundance of love and happy endings to tales that would be cheesy, were they not so welcome.

For instance, adopted by parents who raised her materially well, but gave her less love than they might have had she been their biological child, Penelope compensates for this void in her life by acquiring a successful career. But the sensitive reader longs for her to find some resolution to her personal story and Evaristo, naturally, does not disappoint on this score. I use the term ‘naturally’ with particular deliberation, because underlying all the rage, cruelty, sexual abuse, tribulations of unwed mothers and ugly social hatred, is a strange cheerfulness that appears to stem from the novelist’s deeply personal conviction that — like Pandora’s box — once all the evils have flown out, hope remains. In presenting a vision that is no less warped in some ways than that of Katherine Dunn’s remarkable Geek Love (about the twisted psyches of circus freaks) Evaristo allows maternal love, sisterly humour, childish sweetness and the bouncy erotic thrills of femininity to redeem her novel from turning into a grim Beloved-style book.

being Jewish is one thing but never in a million years did she expect to see Africa in her DNA, that was the biggest shock of all, the test didn’t provide answers, it confronted her with questions as she lay there she imagined her ancestors attired in loincloths running around the African savannah spearing lions, at the same time wearing yarmulkes, eating open-topped rye sandwiches and paella, and refusing to hunt on the Sabbath perhaps she should get a dreadlock wig in keeping with her new identity, become one of those Rastafarians and sell drugs at least it explained one thing to her, why she tanned as soon as the sun hit her skin — Excerpt from the book

As Hamlet would say, “Ay, there’s the rub.” For, in spite of her considerable talent, Bernardine Evaristo is no Toni Morrison. She lacks both the determined grit and literary genius of the latter, and her occasional references to maestras such as Audre Lorde and Gloria Steinem can do little to make up for her reluctance — perhaps inability — to grapple with the ugliest aspects of race relations, especially insofar as they relate to women. For example, she prefers to dwell on miscarriages than abortions, hateful social ostracism as opposed to murder, and her grasp of history leaves much to be desired.

Unfortunately, this deficiency creeps into her otherwise excellent writing. For example, comparing pigeons in a simile to “Nazi bully boys” comes across as linguistically silly at best and deeply ignorant at worst. Transgenders in India are called ‘hijras’ not ‘hirjas’! That the castle in the port city of Elmina, Ghana, was a slave-trading stronghold is hardly a long-lost nugget of precious wisdom; any child studying African history learns this double quick and, indeed, my own mother-in-law — who hails directly from Elmina’s Fanti-tribe ruling house — has pointed out that it is reductive (not to mention insulting) to view historic Dutch-Ghanaian trade on the former Gold Coast as being unmitigatedly shameful.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that Evaristo had a decided agenda when writing this book and she fulfils it with incredible stamina and determination, not to mention humour. There is something undoubtedly epic about the spirit of the book, which many readers should — and will — regard as a keeper. No one should feel ashamed of placing Girl, Woman, Other alongside the Iliad, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Paradise Lost on their shelves, and one of the sincerest compliments I can pay to this book is that, had it not won the Booker Prize, it would still have entered the literary canon based on its manifold merits.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Girl, Woman, Other
By Bernardine Evaristo
Hamish Hamilton, UK
ISBN: 978-0241364901
464pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 12th, 2020