Published by Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 464 pages.
A gay artist, an adopted child, a transgender woman, a successful lawyer, an old woman finding she has more in common with her transgender granddaughter than with her straight children…these are just some of the voices you hear in Bernadine Evaristo’s book, which in narrated in turn by 12 British women of colour.
Amma is a gay artist who starts a theatre company with her best friend Dominique. Dominique leaves London to follow Nzinga, an American woman, to a commune in California but the relationship slowly becomes abusive. Amma’s daughter Yazz’s closest friends—her “squad”—include Waris, a Somali woman who chooses to wear a hijab and draws comics featuring a female superhero. Carole rejects the traditions of her mother, Bummi, and becomes a successful lawyer. LaTisha, Carole’s schoolfriend, becomes a businesswoman. Shirley is the teacher who singled out Carole in school and pushed her to make something of herself. There is Megan, who rebels against her mother dressing her up in frocks and eventually breaks free to become transgender and changes her name to Morgan; and Hattie, Megan/Morgan’s grandmother and Hattie’s mother Grace.
All of them are connected in some way and you follow the threads that link them from one narrative to the next. We meet some of them in one narrative and then learn their story when their turn comes to speak. Shirley is the stern teacher in Carole and LaTisha’s narratives, but she has a story too that brought her to where she was. In Carole’s narrative, LaTisha is friend who lets her down but you get her version of the events when she tells her story. And Penelope, whom we first meet as an overbearing teacher in Shirley’s story with whom she has a confrontation, is actually someone dealing with the shock of learning she is adopted and the grief of being abandoned by her mother. Penelope decides to use DNA to find her mother, and the story comes full circle.
The women try to make it in a world that is often skewed towards the men. Shirley is a bright and hardworking student, the one in the family who makes it, not her older brothers.
“who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturday mornings doing both
“who were given first helpings at meals they never had to cook, and extra portions because they were growing lads, including mega-helpings of the most desirable desserts
“who weren’t punished for speaking their mind, whereas she was sent to her room at the slightest sign of insurrection, keep your thoughts to yourself, Shirl”.
Bernadine Evaristo writes about what it means to be a woman of colour, gay or straight. Carole has to deal with the surprise and doubts on the part of new clients when they realize their lawyer is a black woman. The twelve women include people of different ages, sexual orientations and beliefs. Amma’s open, bohemian lifestyle contrasts with Shirley’s more traditional outlook. Megan/Morgan’s story is about the process of refusing to be identified with a particular gender.
Through the lives of these women, Evaristo raises issues about feminism, partriarchy, racism and sexuality. But it is all done without any preaching.
This would be a great book to hear read aloud. She writes in run on sentences broken up into paragraphs, almost the way people would speak.
Evaristo brings these women alive, with their fears and triumphs, joys and sorrows. Listening to their voices—self-assured, shy, angry, boisterous, controlled, sad, happy—you get a picture of what life is like for women of colour.
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