Polyphony requires balance: lines of melody that interweave, supporting each other one moment, competing for dominance the next. In her new novel, Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo employs these qualities to wonderful effect, composing a compelling work of individual voices in counterpoint.
We begin with Amma, walking towards the National Theatre, where her play The Last Amazon of Dahomey will open later that night. Years of community centres and pubs, then a call from above one Monday morning and she’s made it here. Passing homeless people on her way to the theatre, reflecting on the ironies of her new status, she looks back at the squat in King’s Cross, her ‘decades on the fringe, a renegade lobbing hand grenades at the establishment that excluded her’, producing plays like Cunning Stunts and FGM: The Musical. Today, approaching the brutalist architecture, she worries: is she selling out in her middle age?
Meanwhile, Carole exits Liverpool Street station towards the investment bank where she is now a vice-president. Like Clarissa Dalloway, her mind wanders as she moves through London, musing on what brought her to this point: the awful early trauma; deciding to escape Peckham and poverty; the miraculous place at a posh university; all that privilege; and, despite her fear, beating the odds again and again, until here she is, still fighting for respect from everyone at work.
Then, Bummi – so proud of her vice-president daughter, but devastated that Carole has chosen a white boyfriend, Freddy, and ‘English high society’ over her Nigerian culture and her own mama. Now, LaTisha – Carole’s school friend, raising three kids of her own and working at Tesco, where she always arrives on time, ‘Supervisor of the Month three times in six months’.
In this way, Girl, Woman, Other gives voice to twelve people, mostly black women, living in Britain today. Many of them are related in some way – mothers, daughters, old friends, colleagues – and as the chapters progress, a large, shimmering tree comes into view: Amma’s daughter Yazz (‘the older generation has RUINED EVERYTHING’) and friend Dominique (‘Alice and Audre and Angela and Aretha rolled into one’); Winsome (‘served last in whatever shop I went into’) and teacher Penelope (‘a bottle of wine a night is not overdoing it’); Morgan, ‘gender-free for six years’ and their grandmother Hattie (‘just be who you want to be and let’s agree not to talk about it’). The perspectives complement and contest one another, amounting to a glorious, atmospheric set of ventriloquisms.
There is a warm, chatty quality to the stories, so that, despite the third-person narration, they read almost like interviews. Shifts in dialect and sense of humour are subtle and convincing. I worried at times that the author would get caught up ticking boxes – gay, straight, old, young, trans, cis, girl, woman, other. Far from it. These people feel familiar: the working-class kid at Oxford trying to fit in, the Nigerian mum who wants her grandkids to look like her, the nonagenarian resisting power of attorney. Though they span diverse generations and cultural backgrounds, Evaristo’s characters share similar worries, such as success and safety. Yet even those who have spent their lives obsessing over a career find eventually that their happiness ultimately relies on their loved ones (access to the grandkids, a partner to cook with on a Sunday).
The book’s final chapter offers a hopeful note, with the polyphony finally uniting at the play’s afterparty. In collecting her characters together in one place, Evaristo seems to be writing a wished-for fantasy into being: her beloved characters invited within the walls of the National Theatre to celebrate a racially inclusive, thematically bold play. At the back of the theatre, they toast the playwright. And though Amma worries about the impact of all this success – the attention, the commodification – it is a moment of victory. With this rich composition, Evaristo deserves a toast herself.