Following the lives and struggles of twelve very different but connected characters, Girl, Woman, Other weaves an illuminating tale of British life.
From London to Leeds, and Nigeria to the USA, Evaristo takes us on a magnificent journey through the decades. Exploring how things have changed for women and how things have very much stayed the same. For Gracie, a “half-caste” woman born in the late 1800s (or early 1900s) taught to have decorum and poise, to Morgan who was told they should be wearing dresses as opposed to trousers, Evaristo illustrates that notions of respectability and the stereotypes of what is expected of women (based on gender norms) very much transcends time and space.
Surprisingly, I found pieces of myself in many of the characters and their stories, particularly the older characters. For instance, Dominique’s poor, and ultimately abusive, relationship, Penelope’s sense of disconnect from family ties, Shirley’s “woe is me” teacher life and Carole’s academically accomplished but underlying unhappiness. Evaristo’s writing allows you to feel like you know these characters personally; they resonate.
I read this book together with a friend as part of our “Virtual Book Club” and we both agreed that the narratives of the characters from the older generations were most poignant and telling for us as they painted a picture of stories we were not privy to, that seemed not to exist in social and cultural discourses. For example, Bummi and Omofe’s lesbian relationship as two Nigerian Church sisters stuck out to as both. How often do we hear stories of a love affair between two middle aged, Christian women? Society tells us that these women are married women – either married to their husbands or God. Evaristo reminds us that the heteronormative narratives that exist in social discourse are not the norm. Instead, they are a version, of the many different narratives that exist in society.
The neatly woven narratives of British life illustrate that “womanhood”, “women” and their stories (and relationships), are not monolithic. There is no “everywoman” as we were made to believe studying Shirley Valentine for KS3 English in Year 9. Certainly, there are common experiences of oppression (enter patriarchy) however, these experiences must be understood from an intersectional standpoint as Evaristo quite clearly demonstrates. Our “race”, class, sexuality and other social characteristics intersect with our experience based on our perceived gender and/or how we choose to identify.
- 1.an ordinary or typical woman:”Lorna is rich and privileged, hardly Everywoman“
Girl, Woman, Other demonstrates how very little we know about each other’s experiences as women, as people. Who knew that Carol was brutally gang raped at 13? Who knew that Bummi a middle aged Nigerian woman had sexual relations with another woman – her church sister Omofe? Who knew Winsome had had an affair with her daughter Shirley’s husband? And who knew that Hattiie had been forced to give up a child in her early teens?
Who knew that these stories exist?
The book is a reminder that we often know nothing about what others have been through or what they are currently experiencing. We only know what is presented to us; the polished facade we often create to appear “okay” on the days when we are not. Bernadine Evaristo reminds us that we are all connected to each other and to history through the careful telling of twelve stories, of predominantly black women, with men serving as only peripheral voices. She shares stories we know, and the stories we are yet to be told.
Girl, Woman, Other is a timely and fascinating read, one which I highly recommend.