An astonishing book. The breadth of scope, the characters, the subtle politics, all combined with the sheer readability, well, you can see why it won the Booker prize.
It’s the stories of 12 people whose lives overlap, all of them black to some extent, and all born women, though one of whom doesn’t consider themselves a woman.
We meet Amma, the radical lesbian theatre director; Dominique her fierce friend who somehow ended up in an abusive relationship; her kick-ass daughter Yazz; a childhood friend, Shirley; who taught Carole, now an investment manager; and LaTisha who is finally making something of her life after a tough start; Winsome, Shirley’s Mum who keeps a big secret from Shirley; and Penelope who taught with Shirley, and had a crush on Bummi, Carole’s Mum; Megan/Morgan who fights their gender; Hattie, their grandma who has a farm in the north east and has a surprising connection to Penelope; and Grace, Hattie’s mother.
Each chapter gives a third person account of one of the twelve characters, giving only their perspective. In doing this Evaristo covers over a century of experiences of black women, from the nineteenth century to the Windrush generation to the social media generations. We get Winsome, who travelled with her husband to Cornwall to try to get work as a fisherman, only to be hounded out by the racist views of the locals. And we get Megan, whose life is hell until she discovers the trans community and that she doesn’t have to be defined by her gender.
By having a chapter on each character Evaristo is necessarily quite broad brush in its treatment of them, but it allows such a brilliantly wide account of black women’s experiences and, because of the overlap between the characters, it is rich in both personal detail and the wider social and political context that they live in.
What was carefully done too, was the way Evaristo uses this approach to tease out the complex and often unspoken secrets, and sometimes connections, between the characters – things that have happened to a person, or things they’ve felt, which they have never shared with anyone – a horrific experience that prompted Carole to change her life so much for the better, and sexual experiences for Bummi that she could never speak of to anyone. The point she brilliantly demonstrates is that you can never fully know other people, they are always ‘other’ as the title hints at, with inaccessible experiences and knowledge and feelings.
The writing style is of note, too. It’s in the style of narrative poetry as much as novel, a form of writing Evaristo was known for earlier in her career with The Emperor’s Babe. But not in a difficult poetry kind of way. It’s the kind of writing that you can storm through, reading it in great gulps, as the intrigue unravels, like a cross between Ali Smith and Joyce Carol Oates. Or something.
The point is its brilliantly readable, full of fascinating characters and a political awareness that is pointed but subtle. Go read.