One of my goals for 2021 is to read more books that take more time, demand me to slow down and digest. I read 104 books last year – thanks in part to the original March lockdown – and whilst I am happy with the number and hold no qualms to the books I read, looking back there are some titles that I can’t really remember. I am an emotional rater, and not much of a reviewer, focusing more on the enjoyment of the reading experience than the nuanced aspects of the work. I don’t necessarily see a problem with this. However, to quieten the green monster who stirs whenever I encounter those who can so eloquently dissect and identify the finer points, I have pledged to try reviewing. In some cases, this will be a written review, in others review will simply refer to taking the time and the space to reflect.
I am a new, and somewhat reluctant reviewer. This is an exercise. Please bear with me and be kind.
Girl, Woman, Other is, by pure happenstance, the first book to undergo this experiment. An unexpected gift from my neighbour, I knew that I would have to make this the first book I read, starting it soon, or risk it becoming relegated to the shelves of ‘one day’. Not my usual type of read, I was intimidated for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ‘Winner of the Booker Prize 2019’ emblazoned on the front; proudly and rightly so, the twelve-different perspectives Evaristo had created. Thirdly, the length was a concern. At 452 pages, it is far from short and I was expected a slog.
I needn’t have worried. As one would expect from the Booker, and as I have found each year as I attempt to read at least something related to the prestigious prize, Girl, Woman, Other sits firmly in the camp of literary fiction. However, unlike some (perhaps bordering on the majority) of the other books I have read in this genre, this felt far more lively and free. Not bogged down by it’s own cleverness. This is a book, told through many stories, simply about being, and about trying to be authentic. The writing felt the same. Even with the mix of prose and poetry-esque formatting, and an almost entire lack of full-stops and speech marks, it felt authentic and refreshingly uncontrived. Evaristo let her characters go where they needed and express what they needed, in whatever form was better. It made me realise that, whilst prose will always be my preferred way of reading, and the only way I attempt to write, emotions can’t always be expressed in full sentences. There were times when the writing style did create a distance between myself at the characters, there was always something holding us back from making a true and full connection. While this was frustrating in parts, it emphasised what the whole book was about: the experiences of woman of colour in Britain and, for many, the dichotomy of opposing expectations. The push and pull of new culture Vs. old, perhaps preventing true connection with either part.
What impressed me the most, and will probably remain with me the longest is how Girl, Woman, Other, is a true work of intersectionality. Each character is fully created, with, as all humans do, room for error and improvement. Spanning, age ranges, economic backgrounds, paths, experiences, sexualities, and gender identities, Evaristo does an incredible job of not just focusing on the issues that people of colour face (her twelve main characters either identify as women or non-binary) for being people of colour but also the issues they face as a result of their circumstances, either new or historical. It is impossible to detangle these factors from each other and she doesn’t try to . This became most clear to me in the chapters relating directly to Shirley, an ultimately disillusioned teacher. The frustrations, heartbreaks, crises, terrors, sadness, happiness, success, and developments we experience are not all universal, but some are. Some are simply born of being human in a complicated world. Also impressive is the way that the characters aren’t held up. This is not a love-letter just an exploration, which was refreshing and something I had not experienced before in such a female-focused, and female created package.
A thoroughly thought-provoking way to start the new year, I am glad that it has stayed with me in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. A four-star book, it would have perhaps achieved five if it had been 50 pages shorter; ending as it began with Amma and her play at the National Theatre – the last perspective did feel as though it dragged a little. However, I enjoyed the pacing, and appreciated and understood the extra time I needed to spend reading it.