Black, British and going places: Mis-Teeq

Everything is different in Bernadine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other, so that everything can be the same – to paraphrase Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard. Why? Because and despite of her free flowing style with no punctuation and written in a stream of consciousness technique, the twelve short stories fused into each other describing the worlds of the twelve featured characters are more of a patchwork quilt of black female contemporary Britain than a traditionally structured novel – and the conclusion is more conventional than the style.

We do get a full stop after 552 pages but the overall feeling throughout the novel was – we all want to be loved and ideally be in a relationship.

It’s not a page turner in that you want to find out what happens as essentially there isn’t an overall plot – but each life is very accessible and their thoughts, tastes and views are revealed to all. A bit like looking into their diaries or listening to their inner thoughts. It’s contemporary Metropolitan England with all its fancies and favours. Forget Cornwall or Skye, this is Evaristo’s world of the capital.

British author Bernardine Evaristo poses with her book Girl, Woman, Other. She would later win the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction, an honor she shared with Margaret Atwood.

Her insights are gossipy, candid and real. That’s the best reason to read about Amma, a middle aged lesbian theatre maker in London whose latest play is being staged at The National Theatre. We then move on to her daughter Yass who is not the easiest person to love. And it has to be said that many of the characters in the novel are not attractive. Is it a satire? A black comedy? Bernadine Evaristo doesn’t allow her characters a voice as there’s no dialogue as such. Instead as the author or narrator tells us what she thinks as we move from lesbian to lesbian and from black Britain to well.. someone related to BAME in some form or other. At times funny, at times elitist, it’s so real we almost know the characters personally – but there is a sense of detachment. And there is sense of box ticking as anything from UKIP to radical left wing feminism is covered in the lives described.

Sade is one of a few British black female singers to make the mainstream

In an interview with William Rycroft of Waterstones bookshop Bernadine said the book grew ‘organically’ with no idea how many characters there would be. After deciding on 12 characters grouped in threes she said the stories of each woman would grow out of the women in their lives. She said: “They all have their stories, but they are not short stories as it is a cohesive novel but it is unusual in structure.”

She described the absence of punctuation as ‘a form of poetic patterning on a page’ as a free flowing reading experience and she hoped readers should ‘go with the flow.’ It allowed her to be energised and able to inhabit the minds of the characters as traditional punctuation held back imagination.

 We meet Shirley, a teacher and unhappy bride Winsome from Barbados, and banker Carole who is part of corporate Britain. Bernadine explained she wanted to make sure she had a range of people with trans, straight and gay characters with a mix of racial backgrounds to show how the nation is so diverse.

By the end we are on a train travelling north by train with grumpy Penelope who is 79 and keen to find out who her birth mother is after an adoption process and a DNA test which suggests she is partly Scandinavian and African.

The novel explores themes of class, race and gender giving a voice to those who have not always been heard. Some of those described you want to kill while others are portraits of people rarely allowed to step into the limelight of post war Britain. But one thing is assured – on each page it reveals juicy gossip and descriptions of real and often very flawed women – and we all like a bit of gossip.

Harry Mottram

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The interview with Bernadine is at