Girl, Woman, Other

Girl Woman Other cover

Author: Bernadine Evaristo

Finished on: 11 April 2020

Where did I get this book: An audible listen

“You never really understand a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” So goes the famous quote from To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s telling that Harper Lee’s beloved character, Atticus Finch, assumes it is a he rather than a she we want to understand. Here in Girl, Woman, Other,  Bernadine Evaristo’s extraordinary Booker-winning novel, it’s a whole lot of women who are offering up their skins for us to climb inside and have a good rummage around.

This is an unconventional book in more ways than one. Not only do we see the world from twelve different perspectives, mainly black British women’s, living a broad spectrum of experiences – but this really is the final nail in the coffin of show don’t tell. Initially, Evaristo’s unfamiliar, tell-heavy style jars a little. But it soon begins to feel refreshing – a welcome change from the usual literary techniques that are so familiar.

It is perhaps inevitable that the quality of writing varies over the twelve perspectives – but I am surprised by quite how much it varies. Some stories, such as Dominique’s – a rebellious and creative woman who goes from running her own successful theatre company in the UK to moving to the US with a domineering partner who decides where they live, what they eat and even changes her name without her consent – are utterly compelling, so gripping we’re into sit in the car for another twenty minutes after I’ve got home to continue listening to the audio book and find out what happens territory. Others don’t match these heights.

The language, similarly, ranges from effortlessly absorbing to throwaway clichés – which is disorientating at times. I am curious about whether listening to the audio book rather than reading the hard copy made a difference to this experience. Evaristo writes the book in a punctuation-light prose poem style, whereas read aloud it comes across as more standard prose.

It’s also interesting that such an unusual book ends with a traditional narrative style in its epilogue. The ending provides a more conventional element of reader satisfaction – but it also feels like a compromise compared to what has come before. I like to think this is Evaristo’s way of generously easing us back into whatever we’re going to read next.

For all that I love my formulaic comfort murder mysteries, I also love a book that breaks the mould, that takes the rule book of how we’re supposed to write and rips it up. I enjoyed climbing into the skin of these women – and I’m thankful to Evaristo for taking me there.

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