Reviewing a novel after it has won the United Kingdom’s Booker Prize can feel a little redundant. If a book has already been named “the best novel in the opinion of the judges,” who cares for the opinion of a humble American newspaper reviewer? And if the award has been accompanied by controversy — in this case, a rogue jury giving the prize to two novels and in so doing forcing the first black British and black woman winner to share her accolades, thus fomenting attacks from multiple literary and political quarters — the danger of speaking amiss rises significantly.
Fortunately, “Girl, Woman, Other," this year’s shared Booker winner (along with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”) and the brilliant Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth book, is so exuberant, capacious, and engaging that all such worries fall aside. Is it perfect? No. But few novels are, even Booker winners. Is it complex, astute, painful, funny, enlightening, and most of all enjoyable? No question.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is an epic multi-narrative verse novel built upon a vast range of formal, thematic, and cultural predecessors and references: Chaucer, the Arabian Nights, and “for colored girls”; Dickens and Zadie Smith; Twitter, Frantz Fanon, “Alice and Audre and Angela and Aretha”; to name just a few. If that sounds formidable, keep calm and carry on, for upon those building blocks Evaristo constructs an elegant and compulsively readable account of the black women of England, a dozen of whose life stories appear in chapters named after their protagonists.
The novel opens with lesbian feminist playwright Amma, whose new play, “The Last Amazon of Dahomey,” is opening at London’s National Theater. Amma occupies the center of the web of relationships that link the characters. Dominique is her best friend and partner in an ’80s theater company designed to “be a voice in theatre where there was silence / black and Asian women’s stories would get out there.” Shirley, Amma’s childhood friend, is the daughter of Winsome and teacher of LaTisha and Carole, who is the daughter of Nigerian immigrant Bummi, who cleans house for Shirley’s colleague Penelope. Nonbinary Twitter star Morgan, descendant of Hattie and her mother Grace, runs into Amma’s daughter Yazz (whom she first meets at a college speaking engagement), at Amma’s opening night party in the final chapter.
Got that? No worries, for one of the many achievements of “Girl, Woman, Other” is how its story lines at once stand alone and layer together. Plumbing the many dimensions of her character’s lives, Evaristo revels in universals and singularities alike. The forebears of black British women all come from somewhere, here St. Lucia, Montserrat, Barbados, and Guyana, the Gambia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Malawi, but also Scotland and Yorkshire, for to be a black British woman is often to be multiracial ... to the surprise of some. Their work, described in lovingly embodied detail, is equally diverse: finance and farming, managing a supermarket and teaching unruly high school students, “employing an army of women cleaners” and a failed foray as “a radical feminist lesbian housebuilder on wimmin’s land called Spirit Moon.”
These women go dancing, read books, lecture each other about art and politics (sometimes to the point of good-natured caricature). They have colleagues, best friends, squads, daughters (and a few barely noticed sons). Their lovers, husbands, and baby daddies also run the gamut: rapists, brief romancers who beget fatherless children, seemingly good husbands who go bad, good husbands with secrets, and a striking number of solidly good partners (especially later in life).
Among these relationships, Evaristo returns always to mothers and daughters, who reveal the novel’s fundamental optimism. Bummi and Grace lose their heroic mothers early and yearn for them forever. In contrast, those mothers and daughters who spend their lives together see each other clearly as water. When Amma “dared suggest she lower her skirt and heels and raise the scoop neck of her top,” Yazz, who rolls her eyes at “Mum’s gentrification of Brixton,” calls her a “feminazi.” Winsome has no patience with Shirley’s litany of complaints. Bummi’s pride in Carole’s rise through the ranks of British academia and business turns to rage at her daughter rejecting her Nigerian identity. But conflict leads inevitably to reconciliation: Mothers may expel their children, but they always take them back.
As a novelist, Evaristo is firmly in control of the waves she rides. When her characters skirt the edge of stereotype, she holds them back (Yazz’s seemingly naive white friend Courtney surprises her and the reader by announcing that “Roxane Gay warned against the idea of playing ‘privilege Olympics’) or gleefully pushes them in (Roland, Amma’s gay friend and Yazz’s devoted father, is a snarky takedown of the highfaluting public intellectual). When Winsome’s book club has “a debate ... about whether a poem was good because they related to it, or whether it was good in and of itself,” Evaristo preemptively forecloses definitive takes on what makes a work of literature the best.
Ultimately, “Girl, Woman, Other” is a firmly progressive novel. Its characters suffer, from personal events, sexism, racism. But the most overt racism occurs in the historical past, and by the end of the book, suffering is in everyone’s past, even grumpy Shirley’s, though she may not realize it. The final chapter’s party pulls together most of the characters for celebration (and the humorous reprise of a few old conflicts), while the final scene triumphantly pulls together the novel’s dominant themes. I laughed, I cried, I turned the last page fully satisfied.
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER
By Bernadine Evaristo
Grove, 464 pp. $27
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’