Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A review

Here we have another modern writer who eschews standard English punctuation. There are no periods in her book. Sentences are delineated by an indentation as at the start of a new paragraph. There are no capitalizations at the beginnings of sentences; only proper names are capitalized. Interestingly, she does use question marks at the end of her questions and she uses commas to define clauses. But the effect is of one long, uninterrupted flow of information. It reminds one of the works of many poets. Indeed, at times it seems almost a hybrid of prose and poetry.

The quirkiness did not bother the Booker Prize committee which awarded Girl, Woman, Other this year's prize (along with co-winner Margaret Atwood's Testaments). Bernardine Evaristo thus became the first black woman to win the Booker. Pity they diluted the honor by making her a "co-winner".

After the first few pages, Evaristo's idiosyncratic punctuation choices didn't bother me either. I was lost in her big, busy narrative featuring a large cast of female characters all related in some way to roots in Africa or the Caribbean. These are mostly mixed race women with ancestors in both the black and white world and we follow them as they come to terms with what that means in our modern world.

These characters wrestle with gender issues as well. There are women who were born female, women who were born male but now identify as female, lesbians, heterosexuals, bisexuals, almost any sexual permutation you could think of is represented here. All are representatives of the human condition and are written about as such.

Moreover, women are represented at all ages, from teenagehood to old age. The oldest character is 93.

This polyphonic novel features the voices of at least a dozen primary characters and it seems utterly impossible to neatly sum up, but if there could be said to be a central character, it is probably Amma, a black lesbian 50ish playwright, who has a new play being produced at the National Theater in London called "The Last Amazon of Dahomey". Several of the other characters have relationships with Amma and others are drawn in some way to her play. On opening night, many are present for what turns out to be a great triumph.

The stories of each of the dozen characters that we come to know are told in time frames that drift back and forth between the past and present and each story is marked by its multicultural sensitivity. While Evaristo tells her characters' stories with sympathy and with grace, she also does not hold back from occasionally tweaking them for examples of hypocrisy and pretentiousness. Their full humanity is on display.

I thought this book was a remarkable accomplishment. The writing is lyrical, poetic, and it shines throughout with a wit and a vitality of spirit. The plot is loose; one might even argue that it doesn't have a plot but that doesn't really detract from the richness of the story. It is evident why the Booker Prize folks liked it so much.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Comments

  1. When done well I find that I usually like it when authors experiment with unusual prose and other aspects of a book. I am not sure if I ever read a book without punctuation before. The book sounds really innovative in a lot of ways.

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    1. It is that and, in my opinion, it is very well done. I did not find her manner of presenting her story offputting in the least.

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  2. Great review, Dorothy! I will get to this one eventually I am sure. The book I am reading right now also has a poetic sensibility and while too much of that used to bother me it does not anymore. Does that mean I am a more mature reader?

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    1. Maybe our acceptance of writers expressing themselves in different ways is a sign that we are finally growing up!

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  3. It's a fine review, Dorothy. i have to say that I am a traditionalist when it comes to grammar, spelling, punctuation etc. and I am sure the format would irritate me a little. The books sounds appealing, however, and just at face value, any work that shares an award with Margaret Atwood would seem to have great merit.

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    1. I generally agree with you regarding a preference for standard punctuation, etc., and yet I found in this instance that I quickly forgot any irritation I had. Several of the books I have read this year have deviated from the standards ingrained in me in grammar school and I'm really not sure what's up with that. Do these writers imagine that grammar "rules" constrain them in some way in their storytelling? I don't get it, but there we are.

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  4. I am not sure I could let go of the missing punctuation as easily, but am glad you enjoyed this read!

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    1. I had been warned about the book but was determined to give it a chance. Because Booker. I was surprised to find that after the first few pages I was not at all bothered by the absence of standard punctuation. I was engrossed in the story.

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  5. Wow this one sounds pretty modern. I will have to see if the punctuation & style bothers me. It sounds like it has quite a handful of characters .... was it difficult to keep track?

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    1. Initially, I thought it would be confusing, but once I got into the story, it really wasn't. The narrative flowed for me in a way that was easy to follow.

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  6. My sister gave me this for Christmas - it'll be interesting to see what I think - I usually avoid the books that win prizes... Happy New Year

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    1. If you can manage to not be distracted by the idiosyncratic punctuation (I know that's a dealbreaker for some readers), I think you'll really like it, Carole. The characters are fascinating.

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