Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other

I got this book as a birthday present back in December, I had seen it as one of the “trendy” books to read in the past year. After seeing it on so many book blogs and tons of Instagram accounts, I felt let out, so I wanted to give it a read! Call it peer pressure- lol. Particularly because it’s from a British perspective, something that will probably have a little piece of my heart, because I can relate to it. It’s written with many “voices” and perspectives, which makes it even more different to your typical work of fiction. This week on the blog, we review Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, have a read!

Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race

Synopsis:

I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe this book and I am finding it kind of hard. It is a mirror of British/Caribbean history from various slices of society. Be it lower class immigrants, to middle to upper class Black British women, to the Windrush generation. It follows a cluster of women of varying ages, who are all “connected” in some way. The book centres around Amma’s debut play, it gives the background story of each character, leading up to the night of the play’s premier. It’s a take on 6 degrees of separation in some ways, but the ways in which each character is connected is very interesting and weaves a lovely tapestry of culture, class, race, gender identity and the balance we all juggle between the people we are and the people we want to be.

Amma: Rebellious, hippie, lesbian, playwright, she is also Dominique’s best friend and close friend with Shirley, seems like she is struggling with staying relevant- felt she was pretty revolutionary in her day and is now realizing that she is becoming “invisible”. The book bookends ( begins and ends around her play ).
Yazz: Amma’s daughter, whom she conceived with her gay friend, Roland.
Dominique: Amma’s best friend and business partner, before love took Dominique to the USA, where she moved permanently
Carole: A 1st generation Briton, who grew up in the multicultural area of London, was sexually assaulted as a teen, vowed to get herself out of her impoverished area and drop anything or anyone associated with her past- this included her best friend LaTisha, morphed into a clone like London banker, married a rebellious rich, wild upper class man, but oddly, this brought her closer to her culture
Bummi: Carole’s Nigerian mother, became widowed at a young age, worked as a cleaner and eventually opened her own successful cleaning company. Had a fling with another woman, but worried about what people would think and eventually remarried a Ghanaian man, Kofi later in life.
LaTisha: Was Carole’s best friend till Carole’s sexual assault, they went on different paths. She was also assaulted by the same guy who assaulted Carole, but they never told each other. A single mother to 3 children, from 3 different fathers by the age of 22, she rebuilt her life, worked her way up to assistant manager of a grocery store and is studying and working towards getting a promotion to be manager.
Shirley / Mrs King: An ambitious, driven teacher but by all accounts was eaten up by the British school system. Especially based on the demographic of students in her school, it became increasingly violent and due to lack of funding and resources Shirley lost her passion for teaching. Carole and LaTisha’s high school teacher, she helped Carole focus her studies and get into a good school, LaTisha was also her nemesis.
Winsome: Shirley’s Bajan mother, married the 1st people who gave her attention after emigrating to England, had 3 children at a very young age and in many ways felt unfulfilled as a woman, as she watched her daughter become a successful teacher. This lead her to seek a thrill in Shirley’s husband Lennox.
Penelope: Shirley’s teaching colleague, the seemingly only “White” character in the book, till you find out her back story. She was adopted as a baby, resents her parents for lying to her, married her high school boyfriend, later divorces after 2 children and then remarries, but is left single again, later in life and this leaves her bitter. She is a rich, in some ways snotty and borderline racist, lonely woman, who eventually becomes friends with Shirley as they both share their lost of passion for teaching.
Megan/Morgan: Born Megan, they later transition to Morgan as their journey of self-discovery unfolds, in this process of discovery, they meet Bibi and begin a long-term relationship. They are a social media commenter with a massive following, and at 1st their connection to the other characters seems random, until you find out the common thread.
Hattie: Morgan’s 90 something year old great-grandmother, who has decided to give the farm to Morgan and her partner, Bibi. She is the product of a biracial mother and a white farmer, but was White passing. She is pure grit and strength, living and growing up on a farm. She became pregnant at 14 and was forced to give the baby away, without her consent, which you are lead to believe this baby is Penelope.
Grace: Hattie’s mother, born to a White woman and Black man in the 19th century, became an orphan, was trained to be a maid- married Joseph Rydendale, the towns most eligible bachelor and they ran a successful farm. Hattie was their only child as Grace was unable to bring another healthy child to term.
Roland: The only “male” voice in the story, he is Yazz’s father, Amma’s friend and sperm donor. Intellectual, social commentator, professor, author and frequent panelist on various British television programs. Amma considers him a sellout, because though he may be Black, he fully accepts and doesn’t deny that he isn’t the voice for all Black people and sold out in order to make it big and be a success for Yazz.

Life is an adventure to be embraced with an open mind and loving heart

Break It Down

As someone who lived in the UK for a total of ten years, I understood that I had a unique lens in which I saw the country, I was an immigrant, coming from Canada, but I wasn’t always viewed that way because of how “educated and well spoken” I came across. I also was born in the Caribbean, but moved to Canada at a young age. So though I viewed Britain as an interesting place, it wasn’t as Utopic as most people believed it to be, at least not for me. Upon reading more literature and especially after reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I Will No Longer Talk To White People About Race“, it begins to make a lot more sense. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that, essentially this book adds the characters, the muscle and fat to Reni’s book. If anything, this book shows just how colourful and varied our lives are and how skewed the lens people see us through can be. But it also shows just how much people can change and how as much as you think you know them you never truly do. When people make lazy assumptions about Black women and what they believe them to be alike, they make broad stokes and paint us all with the same brush, using the same paint…this book should be recommended to them. The diversity in characters, in cultures, in nuances and the layers upon layers which shape their choices! Phew! No woman is alike, and reading about them and then reading about the women “before” them which essentially shaped their characters is a really interesting lens in which to view them. This book touched on so many topics, racism, sexism, homophobia, mysogyny, intersectionality, abuse, privilege – I mean the list goes on! I could relate to so many layers and so many issues within this book, it was like having a cocktail!

Bummi’s story was one that somewhat took me by surprise because after the death of her husband, Augustine and Carole living her life away from her mother, as she had rejected all things about her Nigerian culture. Bummi makes a drastic decision that she must fend for herself because no one else will and Bummi makes the decision to offer herself to their local pastor in order to secure a loan, she then builds a successful cleaning company and as her life begins to flourish she engages in a same sex relationship. While I was saddened that she felt she needed to sleep with the pastor in order to get the downpayment, I understand that a widow in her circumstance didn’t have much choice and within her community, the pastor was the most wealthy person with the means to do so. I have seen documentaries on the lavish lifestyles church leaders lead in some parts of Nigeria and it is beyond staggering. What did surprise me, was the fact that Bummi was a closeted lesbian, her love and admiration for Ofome was so very clear, yet her fear and that fact that it wouldn’t be accepted in her community meant that she had to end things dramatically and chose a male partner out of a sense of “duty”. In the end though, you couldn’t help but feel proud of what she had accomplished.

I was genuinely disappointed that Winsome ( Shirley’s mother ) and Lennox had a year long affair, was surprised her mother would do that to her and just how much Shirley worships and loves her husband for his devotion and for the fact that “he’s never cheated” as she proudly boasts to her friends, when little did she know it happened right under her nose. But in some ways, it almost made it like Shirley “deserved” the betrayal because she was always so miserable and complained about so much, but was never willing to do anything about it. She was somewhat arrogant and maybe that arrogance blinded her, but it also prohibited her from being much more successful in her career than she could have been. From Winsome’s perspective, I suppose you can understand her dissatisfaction at marrying one of the first men she encountered and grew to love her husband, but the passion and fire wasn’t there and seeing her son-in-law ignited something in her for the life she could have had.

Book Club Questions:

Q: Which fictional character in the book do you think has the most or least awareness of their own personal identity?
A: In some way, they are all struggling with their own personal identity, whether it’s Amma and her desire to be relevant or Yazz who just wants to be anything other than her parents, or Carole who is suppressing part of her to be the most “White/palatable” version of herself, but in some ways having a White husband has made her come more in touch with her culture. Or even Dominique who is grappling with the changing ways of the younger generation of feminist or Penelope, who is the most right wing of them all, the one character who we assumed was White, only for her to find out she actually has African ancestry.
Q: There are many betrayals in the book. What, in your opinion do you think is the greatest betrayal and why?
A: To me, the biggest betrayal is that of Winsome and Lennox having a year long affair, that is beyond disgraceful. Especially as Shirley is so close to her mother and her and Lennox appear to have such a great relationship that it didn’t make sense, but I suppose that’s part of the conversation- that things aren’t always what they seem.
Q: If you could be friends with any character in the book who would you choose and why?
A: This is a tough one because although I like Amma’s character, I know full well her and I wouldn’t be friends because I am in no way close to being the type of rebel she is, I would probably be more like a “Shirley” to her. But the character who I think I would marginally get along with might be Carole, but not when she’s been uppity Carole. I feel like I could somewhat relate to her desire to be anything but the poor black girl and her drive to be successful and project a different person is something many Black people/women have struggled with. The suppressing of your culture in order to fit in and not be looked down on, but her drive to also be the very best as well.

Negatives?

I really enjoyed the imagery and the voice of each character and I love how they almost all intersect on the night of the play’s premier, these interesting cast of people. I just didn’t enjoy how rushed their stories were at that stage. It left me breathless because I supposed I wanted the slow, smooth build up the book had taken me on. Or maybe I simply didn’t want the book to end.

Would I recommend?:

Most definitely, it’s worth the read, even just to explore the different facets of people and what makes them who they are; more like who makes them who they are.

RnR Rating

This is a tough one, out of 5 I would give it a 3.8-4…is that decisive enough? It was an easy read, such interesting storyline, but also the way it was written it different.