Chair of the 2019 judges, Peter Florence, comments:
“This ten month process has been a wild adventure. In the room today we talked for five hours about books we love. Two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”
Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“The common thread is our admiration for the extraordinary ambition of each of these books. There is an abundance of humour, of political and cultural engagement, of stylistic daring and astonishing beauty of language. Like all great literature, these books teem with life, with a profound and celebratory humanity. We have a shortlist of six extraordinary books and we could make a case for each of them as winner, but I want to toast all of them as “winners”. Anyone who reads all six of these books would be enriched and delighted, would be awe-struck by the power of story, and encouraged by what literature can do to set our imaginations free.”
What’s left to say about Bernardine Evaristo’s brilliant Booker-winning novel, other than it’s a shame it had to share the award with Margaret Atwood’s bestselling The Testaments? Following 12 characters – in the main, black British women – it’s a compelling snapshot of gently overlapping lives that is fiercely political and feminist without resorting to polemic. These are flawed, complicated women who offer hope, love and a vision of unity, despite their differences of faith, class and age.
As with all patchwork stories, some elements are stronger than others. I thought the earlier narratives, which deal with her characters’ first tentative steps into a mostly hostile Britain, were most compelling; they burn with the acrid tang of injustice and thrum with urgency. By contrast, the woke self-righteousness of present-day Yazz, Amma’s daughter, and her multicultural ‘uni squad, the Unfuckwithables’, is a little too authentically trying.
Girl, Woman, Other” is written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry. Evaristo’s lines are long, like Walt Whitman’s or Allen Ginsberg’s, and there are no periods at the ends of them. There’s a looseness to her tone that gives this novel its buoyancy. Evaristo’s wit helps, too. Yazz describes herself as “part ’90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien.” We learn how useful a hijab can be when you want to have a hands-free cellphone conversation.
This looseness can detract as well. There is sometimes the sense that Evaristo loves all of her sentences a little bit but few of them quite enough. This essentially plotless novel grows longer, but it does not always appear to grow richer.
This highly readable, even slightly saga-ish, book is dedicated to presenting the life experiences of 12 black British women from different backgrounds, giving a voice as directly as possible to those who, until really quite recently, have been little represented in British fiction... Despite the lack of conventional punctuation Girl, Woman, Other makes for fast, easy reading, but it never deepens much as a novel beyond this level of quasi-sociological reportage... Perhaps given the mission — “ I just wanted these characters to expand in people’s minds the idea of what black British women can be”... this profusion is no fault, but rather the essence of her achievement.
Evaristo also dramatises forms of differential treatment within communities, examining the ways her black characters see one another. Watching Amma’s play, Carole is conscious that she ought to feel ‘validated’ by the sight of a ‘stage full of black women’ but instead she feels ‘slightly embarrassed’. It would be better if the play were about ‘the first black woman prime minister of Britain, or a Nobel prizewinner for science’, she thinks, ‘someone who represented legitimate success at the highest levels’, instead of ‘lesbian warriors strutting around’. Shirley, despite her friendship with Amma, doesn’t want to think about her friend’s homosexuality (‘initially quite disgusting’); Bummi comes close to disowning Carole when she hears her daughter isn’t going to marry a Nigerian; Hattie has no time for her great-granddaughter Megan’s transition to Morgan (‘Hattie asked her outright if she’d been to see a doctor because you sound mental, dear?’); Dominique is frustrated by trans women ‘infiltrating’ spaces that according to her feminism aren’t designed for them. None of these characters supports all black womanhood, or black personhood; there are always some identities they will not stand for, or – because they are figures in a novel – stand in for.
The fluctuating battle lines of race, gender, class, sexuality and entitlement are explored with a restless intensity that feels entirely authentic in Girl, Woman, Other. Questions of selfhood, cultural obligation and otherness churn inside the heads of Evaristo’s women, like white noise from a radio that is never turned off... This wonderful novel is both a critique of the deadening limitations of language when deployed as a crude political instrument, and a celebration of its limitless possibilities. Rather like John Coltrane’s riff on My Favourite Things, Girl, Woman, Other soars away on multiple emotional trajectories before, in the final chapter, set during the after-party of Amma’s triumphant first night, coming back to land, with the characters finally all in the same room.
Evaristo herself treads a line between Shirley and Amma: she welcomes the reader and provides strong stories, appealing characters and lots of humour. But she is also an iconoclast, challenging our comfortable preconceptions on race and politics, and doing it in a narratively innovative way.
Even modern classics aren’t spared. The protagonists of Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners, Winsome’s book club decides, “need a slap upside their heads” for the way they treat women – “women who don’t even get a chance to speak in the book”. Here, the women, with all their flaws, mistakes and desires on show, bite back, with wit, force, fierceness and wisdom.
Evaristo has an impressive command of voice, but sometimes she slips, such as when the university student Yazz refers to the “electronic rock riffs of prehistory”: no twenty-year-old speaks like this. At other times, characters have conversations that seem closer to Platonic dialogue. Nevertheless, this is a capacious, generous novel, full of life and compassion, and a striking affirmation of the plurality of black British experience.
Evaristo brings together a sparkling cast of 12 women in a novel of intersecting London lives. Their diverse heritages are voiced through inventive language choices, ranging from Cockney to patois, making a read of playful effervescence.
Evaristo writes sensitively about how we raise children, how we pursue careers, how we grieve and how we love. We hear 19-year-old Yazz’s fierce ambition to be a journalist after university chime with supermarket supervisor LaTisha’s determination to climb “the giddy heights of retail supremacy”, and with successful banker Carole’s drive to “get on up, Carole, get on up / which is exactly what she’s doing as she disappears between the glass revolving doors of the tall office building”.
Among the book’s reflections on sexism and racism are some thoughts on the role of a black artist. Amma’s kindred spirit and artist friend, Dominique, who leaves Britain to make a new home for herself in America, bemoans the fact that “Britain feels in the past, even when I’m in its present”. The father of Amma’s daughter questions why black people are expected to “carry the burden of representation” when “white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race”.
Girl, Woman, Other is about struggle, but it is also about love, joy and imagination. The book culminates with her protagonists – black women of different generations, faiths, classes, politics and heritages, and a few men too – thrown together at a party for a soap opera-style grand finale. Evaristo’s world is not idealised, but there is something uniquely beautiful about it. The core group holding the party together are a non-traditional family – Amma and Roland are queer parents, while Yazz, their formidable, defiant daughter with the unruly afro, bobs about the room. For many readers, it’s not a familiar world – this is a Britain less often depicted in fiction. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a world that is possible, and worth celebrating.
There is a warm, chatty quality to the stories, so that, despite the third-person narration, they read almost like interviews. Shifts in dialect and sense of humour are subtle and convincing. I worried at times that the author would get caught up ticking boxes – gay, straight, old, young, trans, cis, girl, woman, other. Far from it. These people feel familiar: the working-class kid at Oxford trying to fit in, the Nigerian mum who wants her grandkids to look like her, the nonagenarian resisting power of attorney. Though they span diverse generations and cultural backgrounds, Evaristo’s characters share similar worries, such as success and safety. Yet even those who have spent their lives obsessing over a career find eventually that their happiness ultimately relies on their loved ones (access to the grandkids, a partner to cook with on a Sunday).