After 40 years of writing, Bernardine Evaristo’s 8th novel—Girl, Woman, Other—proved to be her golden ticket to mainstream success. With the 2019 Booker Prize, two British Book Awards, a chairship of judges for the 2021 Women’s Prize, and an MBE all under her belt, Evaristo has become a household name. It was over the course of those 40 years, however, that Evaristo refined her craft and displayed her dedication to writing Black people in all their wonderful complexity. Girl, Woman, Other simply marks the latest iteration of her lifelong practice.

As many have said of her and her joint Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood, their wins were not awarded for a single novel but conferred to them in honour of all their services to literature. Many foolishly repeat that fallacy in defence of Margaret Atwood’s controversial win without acknowledging that she had, in fact, already won the 2000 Booker Prize. This is the latest in a long string of indictments against a white-washed publishing industry where the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, ever, is also the first winner to do so only jointly in over 28 years.

“The first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, ever, is also the first winner to do so only jointly in over 28 years.”

In a metatextual twist of fate, Girl, Woman, Other follows middle-aged theatre director, Amma, who finally has her big break production. The premiere night anchors and bookends the loosely connected tales of twelve Black British women. Girl, Woman, Other’s narrative voice is decidedly omniscient: it gazes upon events, moving plot pieces to precipitate unlikely coincidences. From the 80-year old Northern farmer Hattie to the Twitter-revolutionary Yazz, Evaristo’s novel writes powerfully against the fiction of a universal Black British female experience and explores it as a capacious category that includes a kaleidoscope of various politics, sexualities, religions, geographies, and so forth.

Like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, this sprawling novel has been criticised for doing entirely too much. It tackles a dizzying number of characters, and each of the twelve sections lends itself to being read as a short story. Though many feel that when it comes to representation, too much beats too little, some stories are more effective than others. While Winsome’s scandalous affair completely demolishes narratives about saintly Black mammies, the one-drop sensationalism that undergirds Penelope’s story and orients the entire narrative seems out of place in this radical novel.

Girl, Woman, Other is an instant and effortless classic about the full-bodied scope of Black British experience.”

It is wonderful to see Evaristo’s genius finally recognised on a mass scale. Girl, Woman, Other’s success has spread beyond itself to make her past titles more popular than ever before: a writer’s writer has become a mainstream writer. The striking contrast between the hardback and paperback editions of Girl, Woman, Other is illustrative of the fact. While the former boasts a classic design that might appeal to literary fiction aficionados, the latter’s vibrant illustration is more eye-catching and explicit in its popular appeal. The popularity of the paperback edition prompted Evaristo’s long-term publisher, Hamish Hamilton, to adapt the design for a reissue series of all Evaristo titles, capitalising on the visual currency of Girl, Woman, Other.

But Evaristo’s career trajectory also evidences how white preferences still steer the publishing industry. It is not without reason that Girl, Woman, Other—a digestible novel providing brief glimpses into the lives of 12 Black British women—succeeded where Evaristo’s more esoteric historical fiction did not. In The Emperor’s Babe, Evaristo traces erased Black history predating the transatlantic slave trade which, until recently, did not really interest anyone except Black people. Blonde Roots also demonstrates Evaristo’s flair for historical fiction. Riffing on Noughts and Crosses, it builds a world where the transatlantic slave trade is reversed and a white woman, Doris, is shipped off to the New World. Hamish Hamilton admits that Girl, Woman, Other came at just “the right moment”, which begs the question: the right moment for whom?

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

BERNARDINE EVARISTO, MBE, is the award-winning author of eight books of fiction and verse fiction that explore aspects of the African diaspora. Her novel Girl, Woman, Other made her the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize in 2019. She also became the first woman of colour and Black British writer to reach No.1 in the UK paperback fiction chart in 2020. You can find her on her website.