three black women in white walking out of the ocean

Bernardine Evaristo is one of the smartest writers out there today. Here I am, writing the third of three previews of her Booker-prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other, and I’m noticing that the first two previews were more about larger themes than the book itself. That’s because this book has a multitude of big themes! This is a book that prompts discussion, and offers multiple viewpoints to enhance that discussion. And that’s fabulous.

But there are things I want to tell you about this book flat out, upfront, and not locked within a larger discourse.

The Genius of Bernardine Evaristo

First of all, this author is smart, smart, smart. She has an incredible knowledge of feminist theory and the feminist movement, alongside equally detailed knowledge about blacks, people who identify as LGBTQ, immigrants and emigrants, people who suffer economically, and all manner of disadvantaged folks. She has an in-depth understanding of countries on multiple continents. And she has an in-depth understanding of history.

Secondly, Evaristo has incredible narrative skill. You can have all the knowledge in the world and still write a boring book. Girl, Woman, Other is not boring in the least. It’s a page-turner that drops the reader into the intimate lives of fascinating—and fascinatingly diverse—characters. It’s amazing how much I learned from this book, accidentally as it were, while enjoying the story.

Thirdly, the range of her fictional writing skill is astounding. Most authors who write fiction draw heavily on themselves when crafting their main characters. There’s nothing wrong with that; but it can be limiting, or result in many characters (or entire books) that are pretty much the same. Contrariwise, Evaristo’s main characters are both extremely complex and extremely different from one another. Unless Evaristo has somehow lived a dozen wildly different lives within her one life, she is a master prestidigitator. Every time I moved on to a new section and encountered a completely different character who seemed equally as real as all the other characters I had encountered, I gaped at her range.

Finally, this book is hard to sum up other than by saying that it is real and true. If you ever had a question about the feminist movement, pro or con, the characters in this novel probably wrestle with that same question somewhere in this book (and probably in multiple places). If you ever wanted to understand why someone might act mean or withdrawn or smug or desperate or etc., there are probably characters in this novel that act that way, along with histories that realistically explain their side of the story.

Abuse Looks Like This

One section of the book, for example, centers on an abusive relationship. The description of this relationship rings so true, I would swear that Evaristo had experienced it herself . . . except that it’s impossible that she has experienced all of the events in this novel. All of the characters seem so real. Tell me, do these examples not ring true, true, true?

During an argument between abusee and abuser:

Abusee: “okay, I give in, I agree, let’s turn off the light and go to sleep”
Abuser: “I don’t want you to give in, I want you to change, to understand my reasoning at a deeper level and accept it as the truth”

This is textbook abuse. The abuser won’t let the abusee pause the discussion until tomorrow (a reasonable request). The abuser won’t let the abusee get some sleep (a basic need). The abuser won’t let the abusee simply concede; more is demanded: the abusee’s very soul is demanded (that’s asking too much!).

When the abusee is alone:

Abusee: “she found herself unable to make such a big decision when she’d lost the ability to make even the smallest ones, such as what she ate and wore, and who she was allowed to speak to”

Textbook abuse. The abuser has made the abusee’s world small and restricted her agency.

When the abusee is alone with a friend for the first time in a long time:

Friend: “come sit with me . . . you can talk to me”
Abusee: “resisted saying anything, it would be such a betrayal”

Textbook abuse. The abuser has demanded loyalty and secrecy at all costs.

How Does Bernardine Evaristo Know All These Things?

Perhaps she was at one time abused, or perhaps she was not. The beauty of fiction is that the author doesn’t have to share, and should not be asked to share. Probably the characters are a mixture of autobiographical details, people she has known in her life, situations she has read about or heard about through other media, and pure imagination. But most writers cannot pull this off as Evaristo has. Her talent is rare and admirable.

What’s the Wisdom?

The wisdom is that reading brilliant literature can make you wiser. You might be reading the section about abuse (or even just the passages above) and thinking that it sounds sickeningly similar to a situation that you are in. If this occurs, you have more power than you did before reading, because you have more knowledge. You now have a concrete narrative example of how abuse can subtly arise, how an abusee can get accidentally caught in an abuser’s web, and how an abusee might escape from that web.

And this is true of all of the sections in the book. There are sections about poverty, wealth, youth, old age, sex, art, and so on and so forth. And by the way: so many of the issues described in this book were taboo just a few years ago. It’s amazing to see these formerly taboo issues brought forth, which can help all of us understand issues that we might not know much about, because it has all been kept underground for so long.

I learned so much from this book. I hope you do, too. And if you happen to be in an abusive relationship, or in a situation that you think might be close to abusive, please—ask someone for help. Ask someone you trust. If you don’t trust anyone, find a health care professional to talk to. There are people out there who can help. Send me a message. Reach out to someone—especially if a person is specifically warning you not to reach out. That’s a red flag.

Have you found wisdom in a fictional narrative lately?

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