Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo review – joy as well as struggle

The interconnected stories of a group of black British women raise timeless questions about feminism and race

Black women’s stories have long been misread as something they are not. It is hard to write fiction without being asked: is this story about you? And does this singular tale represent the collective black female experience? Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other turns a subtle side-eye to both questions, and makes answering them an impossible task.

Her eighth novel follows 12 characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades and learning how to be. Each character has a chapter; within the chapters their lives overlap, but their experiences, backgrounds and choices could not be more different. There’s Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright, and non-binary Morgan, who uses the internet to navigate their gender identity – but also Shirley, a teacher who feels alien in Amma’s community, and Winsome, a bride who has arrived from Barbados to an unhappy marriage. Many of the characters are close – friends, relatives or lovers – while others simply visit the same theatre on the same night, or argue with each other on Twitter.

Living within a patriarchal society presents challenges that unite many of us. Amma is concerned with what it means to be politically pure, or to “sell out”, while another character, Carole, chases mainstream success in the world of banking. Other questions raised in the novel feel urgent yet timeless: how can a woman incorporate a relationship with a man into her feminist life? Should we show anger towards those who “get it wrong” – even if from a position of ignorance? Whose guidance should I follow? That dispensed by my mother, my university, my partner, my peers, my feminist heroes? Which bonds will last?

Feminists have always grappled with certain problems, such as commercialisation: “the media’s obsession with beautiful women is nothing new, look at Gloria, Germaine and Angela in their youth”. Evaristo weaves these struggles into dialogue without reducing her speakers into mouthpieces for a popular debate. Some of her conversations feel naive (who is the “most” privileged, and is there a sliding scale anyway?), but they are nonetheless conversations that many of us have had. Others are contentious – one character creates a trans-exclusionary festival – but they’re tackled sensitively. We are also shown where political discourse can fail us, such as through emotional manipulation in a lesbian relationship: “only a black woman can ever truly love a black woman”.

Evaristo, whose previous books explore heritage, the African diaspora and modern life, wrote these intergenerational stories over a six-year period. There are echoes here of her 2009 verse novel, Lara, with the prose at times feeling more like poetry, stripped of capitalisation and punctuation: “while dancing / for herself / out of it / out of her head / out of her body / feeling it / freeing it / nobody watching”. The pace is tightly controlled, and women’s bodies and the way they’re presented arise again and again as motifs, with details including a sequinned hijab, bare feet, an apron and a string of pearls all imbued with significance.

Each storyline brings the reader round to a position of empathy. The characters are flawed and complex, for example Bummi, the immigrant parent who would rather her child did anything but bring home a white partner; and later, an affair that perhaps represents the worst way one woman can betray another. When each section ends, we leave with a new perspective.

There is no overarching story, but to be racialised as black brings with it some level of connectedness. As a result, there is something unconditional about the relationships here – the protagonists support each other, and are often forgiving and gentle. From finding family through DNA testing, to wanting to mentor other women of colour, to the possibilities offered by safe spaces – by the novel’s close, Evaristo has illustrated the drive for togetherness.

Girl, Woman, Other is about struggle, but it is also about love, joy and imagination. The book culminates with her protagonists – black women of different generations, faiths, classes, politics and heritages, and a few men too – thrown together at a party for a soap opera-style grand finale. Evaristo’s world is not idealised, but there is something uniquely beautiful about it. The core group holding the party together are a non-traditional family – Amma and Roland are queer parents, while Yazz, their formidable, defiant daughter with the unruly afro, bobs about the room. For many readers, it’s not a familiar world – this is a Britain less often depicted in fiction. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a world that is possible, and worth celebrating.

• Girl, Woman, Other is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Micha Frazer-Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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