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Friday, 20 March 2020

Review: Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other




In Ruritania, there are many ranks, orders, and medals. An elderly gentleman commonly known as Prince Charles but whose full title is sentences longer than that is often photographed wearing a chestful of ornaments, the birthday badges which his Mum has given him over the many years of a very extended childhood. But even those in the lower orders of society can aspire to their own Ruritanian badge. Bernardine Evaristo has one; she is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - remarkably, this Order does not have to wait for others to award it a ***** rating; it is already Most Excellent in its own eyes.

Evaristo’s MBE may explain much about Girl, Woman, Other. It’s not so much a novel as a set of thumbnails for a very long running TV soap attuned to well-established UK (social realist) and US (schmalz) markets. For the social realists, there is thumb-nailed poverty, rape and domestic violence. Etcetera. For the popcorn crowd, Bad characters like the Evil Nzinga are disposed of but the Good (Domnique & Laverne pages 111-112; Bummi & Kofi pages 187-188; and most blatantly Hattie & Penelope in the Epilogue) ride off into the sunset as the focus turns to soft and the credits roll. It’s a trope which is also found in Evaristo’s earlier Mr Loverman but in that better book there are main characters who are more fully developed and as a result they, as it were, earn their sunset. In this book, the happy endings are merely formulaic: try pages 111 - 112 for example.

The signature typographical style which uses line breaks instead of full stops does not really disguise the banality of much of the prose:

over time Shirley became an experienced schoolteacher who remained committed to giving the kids a fighting chance / realizing everything else was against them with such large classes and lack of resource and parents who didn’t have a clue how to help them with their homework / parents who’d left school early to work in a factory or learn a trade or be assigned a bunk bed in a Borstal … and so on from pages 234 to 236. 

The alliteration at the end of the quotation is not untypical; compare page 324 rozzers in riot gear, at the ready. I suppose it’s meant to breathe life into dead prose.

The narrator’s omniscience grated on me and as I tried to explain that to myself I hit on the word  condescending.  Ruritania is structured by condescensions.  And  they invite collusion, including that of the intended readers of this book.  Evaristo’s novel has more Diversity than a Coca-Cola advertisement but often enough she wheels out her characters seemingly just in order to satirise them (try page 334) and prove to her audience (perhaps only too willing to have it proved) that, really, for all their dreadlocks and veganism and theyism (etcetera) they're really no better than the rest of us, though we can of course all strive, can’t we?

That’s so true, vicar, would you like another cup of tea?

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