Posted at 15:00 on 26 Oct 2020 by eilidh
I’m having fun writing book reviews here. It's a great way to connect with you and share some of the reading that stays with me.
So far I've only posted about non-fiction. I shared my top takeaways about ‘White Fragility’, I recently wrote about three books about communication, and I’m percolating my thoughts on two other items from my antiracist reading list, ‘Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race’ and ‘White Supremacy and Me’, for upcoming posts.
But I've also been reading a lot of fiction. Some of it has been pure indulgence - and some of it has educated me, moved me, and changed my perspective on social issues.
Fiction is a comfort and a joy. It's one of the few pieces of self-care that fits into my current hectic schedule, and I cherish breastfeeding for the opportunity it gives me to recharge by getting engrossed in a good book.
Over the last five years or so I’ve been intentionally reading fiction by women and non-binary authors, which works really well for me - but over the last couple of years I've come to terms with the whiteness of my library, and have started to seek out more fiction by BIPOC writers.
I can't call this part of the "work" of antiracism, but if I'm going to be reading anyway, why not take the opportunity to expand my horizons and increase my empathy and understanding of the lives of people with different experiences than my own? It's barely a fraction of the work required to dismantle white supremacy, but supporting and promoting BIPOC authors and opening my mind and heart to what they have to say is far better than a whites-only literary diet.
So welcome to the first post in a series of book reviews of fiction written by BIPOC women and non-binary authors.
I’m kicking off with 'Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo. It's ranking high on lists and charts at the moment and I'm not surprised. I’ve never read a novel like it.
As much as I’m almost tempted to just say “PLEASE go and read this groundbreaking, heartbreaking book immediately oh my god”, I’m aware that isn’t much of a review, so here's just some of the things that struck me about it.
Every chapter is a snapshot of someone’s life. The narrative voice is like a stream of consciousness; we’re taken inside the minds of our protagonists, shown their thoughts and impressions at a specific moment in time. Of course, nobody could be expected to understand your experience without understanding a great deal else about you and your history, so each chapter is also a potted life story.
None of us stand alone, and we are all interconnected. As well as reverberating through time, the story also connects across social networks, weaving together a big picture that shows the same events from different perspectives. The troubles of a child are seen first through their own eyes, then those of their parent, then via a teacher or friend. Each retelling unwinds layers of nuance and meaning that creates a richness more detailed, complex and humane than most books are able to offer. It shows us how differently the same events can be internalised by different people, and reminds us that every single person we meet has as deep and complex an inner world as we do ourselves.
This is a book about the choices we make, and the thinking that goes into those choices. It’s about relationships, and love, and betrayal. It's about parenting and growing up; it's about being an immigrant, being black, being poor. It's about growing up working class and then going to Oxford and joining the middle classes, and all the complex layers of feeling that throws up. It’s about working hard for your Economics PhD in Nigeria and then coming to London and having to work as a taxi driver. It's about marrying someone whose life experiences have been wildly different to your own, and raising children in a cultural background that is not yours.
It’s about belonging, coming out, assimilation, acceptance and rejection.
It’s about a middle-aged lesbian who works in theatre, lives in London in a polyamorous triad and is a single parent. It’s about the feminist culture wars: the generation gap between the women liberated by second-wave gender theory and younger feminists rooted in intersectionality and trans activism. It’s about a working class non-binary kid from the north of England who isn’t politically active and doesn’t know all the fancy words we’ve made up, but who falls in love online and gradually figures out who they are. It's about rape and domestic violence, and the different ways we process out trauma and discover our boundaries. There's a content warning for sexual abuse, childhood abandonment and child death.
Not all of the characters are likable, but they’re all comprehensible. People you disagree with, people you may be prejudiced against: they're all introduced compassionately, as whole entire people with their own traumas, concerns and rationalities.
The story ripples backwards through time. The opening chapters are set in 2019, and each story then delves further into the past, via the ancestors and mentors of the younger characters, until we're reading the story of a mixed race person in the north of England in the late 1800s: and that history sheds new light on events in the present.
The history of black and mixed race people in Britain is often untold and unacknowledged - but Evaristo firmly enshrines their place in British history, those who travelled here and those born here, descendants and ancestors. We meet families whose members are black, white and biracial, lineages whose colouring ebbs and flows over the decades.
The theme that emerges is our shared humanity. Our experiences are different, and some of us face conditions far worse than others. But we are all connected.
'Girl, Woman, Other' is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly sexy, and heart-breaking. It's bold, challenging, poignant, and relatable. No matter your background you will find something to relate to in it, I promise. This book will open your heart and your mind about all kinds of experiences, all kinds of lives, and all kinds of choices you’ll never have to make.
Can fiction change the world? This book isn't a manifesto. It doesn't purport to persuade you of anything, except perhaps how familiar people can be, even when they seem different. I like to think that reading books like this can help break down the barriers between us, and foster respect and understanding. Plus, it's a page-turning good read.