If the best thing a literary prize can do is spark lively discussion, this year’s Booker Prize was a stupendous success. Two weeks ago, the judges of England’s most prestigious literary contest broke their own rules and split the $63,000 award between Canadian superstar Margaret Atwood and Anglo-Nigerian writer Bernardine Evaristo. In England, that tweedy violation has sparked a level of debate that would erupt in America if the World Series ended in a tie.
Yes, it was an unwise decision - probably a misguided effort to contort half the award into a lifetime achievement prize for Atwood while allowing the other half to recognize a truly fine novel by Evaristo. (BEGIN ITAL)But enough(END ITAL). The fact is, despite its clumsy process, the Booker Prize has done a great service: Its self-induced controversy has given an astonishingly creative, insightful and humane writer the worldwide attention she has long deserved. Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other,” available next week in the United States, is a breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that’s nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming.
Although the novel’s structure sounds daunting, “Girl, Woman, Other” is choreographed with such fluid artistry that it never feels labored. The story begins just hours before the debut of a play at the National Theatre in London, and it ends 450 pages later as the audience spills into the lobby. But during that brief window of time, Evaristo spins out a whole world. Novella-length chapters draw us deep into the lives of 12 women of various backgrounds and experiences. There’s nothing forced about the virtual exclusion of white characters from this novel; they have simply been shifted to the periphery, relegated to the blurry sidelines where black characters reside in so much literary fiction written by white authors.
The complex movements of this large group could easily have overwhelmed all but the chess masters among us, but Evaristo doesn’t shove us into the whole crowd at once. Instead, we meet these women in a series of elegantly layered stories. Young and old, some become rich, most are struggling along. A few are embittered, while others are full of hope. They fall in love with men and women, and they challenge the limits of that binary structure. They rise from a vast palette of racial and national backgrounds stretching from Northern Europe to Africa. Some, particularly the older ones, worry about their heritage being washed away in the insistent flow of white culture. As the novel progresses, their connections accrue gradually, allowing us moments of understanding spiked with surprise. Together, all these women present a cross-section of Britain that feels godlike in its scope and insight.
Central to this cast of characters is Amma, a bold, feminist playwright finding unexpected renown in her 50s. She had “spent decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her,” Evaristo writes, “until the mainstream began to absorb what was once radical and she found herself hopeful of joining it.” With a swirling production called “The Last Amazon of Dahomey” about to open a sold-out run at the National, Amma is anxious and proud, thirsty for acclaim but wary of the inevitable compromises.
In a sense, Evaristo has imagined into being one of the possible trajectories of her own life. In the early 1980s, passionate about acting but unable to find work, she co-founded a theater company for black women - the first in Britain. Although fiction rather than theater became the focus of her career, like Amma, she has produced a number of highly inventive feminist works that explore the function of race. And now, in a most delightful coincidence, both author and protagonist have been propelled to a whole new level of fame.
Amma is the Big Bang of “Girl, Woman, Other,” from which the universe of this novel expands in all directions. Her only child, Yazz, is a sardonic 19-year-old riding a fresh wave of sexual politics that regards her mother’s feminism as embarrassingly antique. Evaristo notes that Yazz has a unique style: “part 90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien.” Hypersensitive to hypocrisy (in others), Yazz is quick to mock her mother’s newfound wealth one moment and wheedle for spending money the next. Her college girlfriends draw us down other avenues of England’s complex racial metropolis.
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Meanwhile, the opening of the play reminds Amma of her old friend, Dominique, and their time in the Bush Women Theatre Company, a group once determined to produce work “on their own terms.” In those early days, Dominique became enthralled with “a teetotal, vegan, non-smoking, radical feminist separatist lesbian housebuilder” who lectures all their friends on “the racial implications of stepping on a black doormat rather than over it, of not wearing black socks (why would you step on your own people?), and don’t ever use black garbage bags.” She eventually lures Dominique away to a “wimmin’s commune” called Spirit Moon, a place vaguely reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s “Paradise.”
With the passage from gentle empathy to steely realism to wry satire, one marvels at the dimensions of Evaristo’s tonal range. “Girl, Woman, Other” is a novel so modern in its vision, so confident in its insight that it seems to grasp the full spectrum of racism that black women confront, while also interrogating black women’s response to it.
But just as crucial to this novel’s triumph is Evaristo’s proprietary style, a long-breath, free-verse structure that sends her phrases cascading down the page. She’s formulated a literary mode somewhere between prose and poetry that enhances the rhythms of speech and narrative. It’s that rare experimental technique that sounds like a sophisticated affectation but in her hands feels instantly accommodating, entirely natural. It’s just the style needed to carry along all these women’s stories and then bring them to a perfectly calibrated moment of harmony - a grace note that rings out after the orchestral grandness of “Girl, Woman, Other” draws to a perfect close.