I had never heard of Bernardine Evaristo before this novel won the Booker Prize this past year (and yes, I am going to choose to believe that she won it singularly, for many reasons…agree or disagree, that’s my stance). In any case, I knew that I wanted to support Evaristo, so I went ahead and bought this one as part of my “treat yourself” Holiday book-buying splurge. It took me a few months to pick it up, and then it took almost a month for me to get through it, but for the best reason…because I savored every minute I spent reading it.
This novel is a collection of vignettes about women, primarily Black and of a variety of LGBTQ identifications, who live in London. It’s inter-generational and, while each story can really be read individually, they are interconnected in many ways, great and subtle, and finish up nicely tied up by the end.
I have so many things I want to say about this book, but I’m going to start with an overall: it was STUNNING. I see why it won such a prestigious award and I am so glad that that brought it to my attention. The writing is absolutely superb. I didn’t realize this before starting, but Evaristo wrote this entire novel without punctuation, which actually would have made me nervous, had I known ahead of time, but in actuality was not only a perfect style for the novel, it actually allowed the novel to really grow into its own in a way that traditionally punctuation might not have allowed. The way it provided a clear stream of conscious reading experience allowed for a really wide breadth of character development in a way that was both profound, but never got bogged down in itself. It was a natural way to present all the jumping ideas and insights from Evaristo, and was just so compelling – it pulled you in fast and deep and the momentum of the words kept pushing you ever forward. I’m glad for the different characters chapters/vignettes that allowed for natural breaks because otherwise I am pretty sure I would never have been able to put this one down.
As far as what this book is about…I honestly feel like a description wouldn’t give it the lauding it deserves for what it accomplishes. Like, just reading that it illustrates a vast array of Black, sexually-diverse British women, and their lives over a few generations, I’m not sure that does it justice. It is that…but in such a dynamic way. The range of perspectives and experiences is so wide, looking at first-, second-, third-generation, a spectrum of age and socioeconomic statuses, those who’ve experienced childhood trauma and sexual assault, who’ve experienced domestic abuse/IPV as adults (strong TWs for both of those), many types of healthy relationships, political alignments and feminist perspectives of all kinds – Evaristo’s characters run the gamut. And they all ring so authentic! Which is amazing to me. I mean I know that it’s the mark of a great writer to be able to do this, but it makes Evaristo truly great in the way she is able to so realistically write such different characters, that all pulse with life and individuality and, though some perspectives I agreed with and some made me so angry, they were just all so convincingly real. And it’s always eye-opening to see how different lived experiences are under each person’s own choices/reactions and the outcomes that result. This is just a fantastic portrayal of (relatively) modern British life and Evaristo’s characters shine bright as they show the reader how truly diverse experiences are even within an objectively “small” sub-population.
I know one concern/critique is that there were just so many characters that it was tough to keep track of their connections. Honestly, I can see that. Some of the connections were slight, some were complex, some were far apart from each other throughout the novel, and the details (the many details, all beautifully crafted) were myriad. But the thing is, you either care about that and figure a way to track it that work for you, or…you don’t, and you just go with it. I enjoyed spotting the connections when they came up, like a kind of game, and the really big/important ones were revisited clearly enough to make them easier to follow. As for the rest, as I’m sure that I missed some, I don’t feel like not catching them negatively affected my experience. Like I said earlier, each of these vignettes paints a picture of a character (or in some cases, a caricature) that I felt could easily stand on its own. Even if their individual stories and messages were all I got, without the links, I still would have felt this was an incredible and worthwhile collection. The greater context just made it that much better. And the big ones like I said, come together in a pretty easy to track and satisfying way at the end. So basically, if you’re a person who has concerns about that aspect, I say just don’t worry about it and enjoy the reading experience!
UGH, clearly, I just loved this one. I have nothing but praise for it, from the writing to the plot (as it were) to the character development to the overall reading experience. It was just so, so VIBRANT! I’ll be recommending it widely as both a gorgeous novel and an important cultural exploration.
A few quotes/passages that stuck out to me. Enjoy:
“privilege is about context and circumstance” (this could basically be a tagline for the entire novel, and the many perspectives it allows the reader to experience)
“she even contemplated having her womb taken out to eliminate periods altogether, which would surely be her greatest possible career move, a tactical hysterectomy for ambitious women with menstruation problems” (what a powerfully, hyperbolically satirical line)
“be a person with knowledge not just opinions”
“the truth is that hierarchies of power and privilege won’t disappear, every historian knows this, it’s innate to human nature and inherent in all societies in all eras and equally manifests in the animal kingdom, so I can’t pretend otherwise”
“we all just wanna be ourselves and make sure we’re okay in the world”
“gender is one of the biggest lies of our civilization”