Twelve overlapping stories across over 450 pages. A novel ‘bursting at the seams’ (Guardian). A book without a single full-stop. Bernardino Evaristo’s Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other invites scrutiny about its structure and how it stitches together the twelve narrative patches of the quilt. Or is it: … how it constructs the twelve-piece mosaic?
I think neither. I think Girl, Woman, Other is a tapestry stretched to its limit. Like the famous Bayeux Tapestry whose image depicts the 1066 Battle of Hastings, Evaristo’s book is one story shown through at least a dozen vignettes. The action described is often simultaneous and many of the stories are connected—just like a tapestry.
The image of the tapestry is specifically evoked in the final story from Grace, born in 1895 in northeast England and later a farmer’s wife:
she played at being the Lady of the Manor in the Long Room, started to embroider a tapestry of the exterior of the house as it was in 1806, newly built by Joseph’s ancestor Linnaeus Rydendale,
based it on a painting of it in the hallway
it was going to be a gift for her husbandBernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019), pp. 390–1)
This tapestry evokes the mythic Penelope’s tapestry, woven (and unwoven) while waiting for Odysseus in Ithaca to return from the Trojan war; but Evaristo’s dozen or so women are far from patient housewives awaiting their husbands. They are much closer to the sneaky Penelope who undoes her day’s weaving in order to stop her potential suitors taking her hand in marriage. Like in this book, Penelope of Ithaca rejects the masculine timeline of sexual domination, and models how the book’s women claim and reclaim their own narratives.
From the Nigerian immigrant, Bummi, who was orphaned in the Niger Delta before starting her own business in London, to British Dominique who suffers from domestic abuse and extreme controlling behaviour, these are women who have been wronged. For the most part the women have suffered from racism, with a range of ethnicities and nationalities depicted. Girl, Woman, Other is both anti-racist and postcolonial.
It is clearly a feminist book (I don’t use this description negatively!). By parading these figures before the reader, Girl, Woman, Other is a version of the play written and directed by Amma that stands at the empty centre of the book, The Last Amazon of Dahomey. The play tells the story of the mythic Amazons—a collection of warrior women—in Dahomey, now called Benin. This feminist assembly, reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), asserts the book’s feminist credentials, and entrenches them as fourth-wave feminism by virtue of the text’s focus on intersectional identities, such as class, race, and sexuality (specifically mentioned on p. 323).
Moreover, just as Rebecca Solnit urged in Men Explain Things to Me (2014), Evaristo’s book includes a strong focus on intergenerational feminism and gives voices to the ‘grandmothers’ who otherwise become ‘excluded influences’.
Girl, Woman, Other is also a queer tapestry with a third of the chapters including a queer story. These vary from homosexuality to bisexuality to transgender and transsexuality. These stories are all different, emphasising the heterogeneous experience of queer citizens, and that no two stories of sexuality are the same. In this way, the book succeeds in defying caricatures and stereotypes.
The same cannot be said for its characterisation of some of its narrators, especially the younger ones. In Yazz, a nineteen year old who proudly calls herself ‘woke’ (p. 58), the exuberance of youth is mocked; while in LaTisha’s narrative, her explanation of how she accidentally became a mother to three children from different fathers carries more than a whiff of caricature. This comes in spite of the apparent aim of the book to dismiss caricature and to offer what E.M. Forster described as ‘round characters’. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, Girl, Woman, Other leans on some non-realistic portrayals to help bulk out its stories.
A generous reader would read these caricatures as deliberately flat, using these stories as relief against the detailed and rich lives of most of the other women; that is, the shallow lives of Yazz and LaTisha show just how deep the lives of the others are. However, it seems unlikely to me that a writer would deliberately weaken a book in order to show how strong certain parts of it are. Rather than a richly woven tapestry, then, for me Girl, Woman, Other is a little overstretched, becoming threadbare in places.
Nevertheless, it’s worth underlining how this is a vastly superior book to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, its Booker co-winner. I’m pointing out relatively minor flaws in Evaristo’s book compared to the fatal (and basic) problems with Atwood’s (see my blog on it here). It makes it all the more criminal that Evaristo was denied the sole limelight when her book is precisely about the problems with and infrequencies of black women’s representation. Ironically, the Booker controversy cements the ongoing political importance of Girl, Woman, Other.
 Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2014), p. 73.