This clever and entertaining Booker winning novel explores the intersection of race, class, gender and identity in today’s Britain through the stories of twelve people-‘mostly women, mostly black’. They’re mostly metropolitan too, though one story takes place in rural Northumberland and Yorkshire. The characters belong to different generations, giving a historical dimension to the experience of black women against a background of social change. Their stories are interconnected in different ways, both through plot and theme, involving the reader in that delicious forensic task of spotting characters and connections as they reappear. And while exploring some issues for women today head on, the writer, Bernadine Evaristo has a light touch with others, raising questions, sometimes inverting the reader’s expectations, making us question our assumptions-and also making us laugh out loud.
The characters come from a range of backgrounds and heritages: Dominique’s father is Indo-Guyanese, her mother Afro- Guyanese, Amma’s mother mixed race Scottish/ Nigerian, her father, Ghanaian. Winsome came to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s as part of the Windrush generation, and Hattie’s ancestors were Ethiopian and Caribbean. Racism is an everyday experience for all of them and Bernadine Evaristo skilfully weaves this into the narratives, showing its changing face as the characters move through history and up the social ladder. So when Winsome and Clovis live briefly in the South West in the 50s, the locals wind down car windows to insult her, refuse her accommodation or service in shops, bar her from cafes and deliberately drive through puddles to splash her as she pushes a pram with two toddlers beside her. Shirley, her daughter, is aware of passengers clutching their handbags tighter as she passes them on the bus and is never sure whether her teacher colleagues’ rudeness in the 70s is down to her race or gender. Carole, a Cambridge graduate and high-flying banker in the 21st century, knows that when she enters a room for a meeting, the client will look at her as if she should be attached to the tea trolley and then past her to the person they are clearly expecting to meet.
Bernadine Evaristo gives us a more nuanced picture when it comes to the male experience of racism: Clovis working at Plymouth docks in the 1950s is accepted by the other stevedores who’ve travelled through the world’s ports and seen people of many nationalities. Slim, settling with Hattie in rural Northumberland in the late 40s, is liked by the community for his pleasant and courteous manners and deep baritone voice in the church choir. Is it just that racism is not a uniform phenomenon and that there are pockets of tolerant people open to people different from themselves? Or is it that these men are doing traditionally male manual jobs and staying in their lower social class, whereas women like Shirley and Carole have ideas beyond their station, breaking into hitherto masculine professional worlds- all the more unprecedented because they’re black?
Moving up the social ladder and the role of education in this move is a theme present in many stories. Bummi is a cleaner, Winsome a bus conductress and they want better paid jobs, with more prestige and less drudgery, for their daughters. So we see Carole, a gifted mathematician, making it to Cambridge and a stellar career in banking. We see her teacher, Mrs. King, dedicated to opening doors for the hard working and talented at the Peckham Comprehensive where she teaches. We see mothers controlling their children’s homework, keen for them to gain the qualifications they didn’t get themselves. However, these experiences are played out in the highly structured class system of the U.K. and its educational offer. We learn that a girl’s chances are better if she goes to New Cross Grammar School with the middle classes of Greenwich and Blackheath, than at Peckham Comprehensive with its escalating problems of poverty and gang violence. And when they do make it to university, how hard it is to enter such an utterly different world. Carole’s reaction on arriving at Cambridge:
she overheard loud reminiscences about the dorms and drugs of boarding school, Christmas holidays in Goa, the Bahamas, gap years spent climbing Machu Picchu, or building a school for the poor in Kenya,
Nobody talked loudly about growing up in a council flat on a skyscraper estate with a single mother who worked as a cleaner
Nobody talked loudly about never having gone on a single holiday, like ever
Nobody talked loudly about never having been on a plane, seen a play or the sea, or eaten in a restaurant, with waiters
Female sexuality and relationships are a theme and, again, we are given a range of experiences: heterosexual, lesbian, polyamory, transgender. Early sexual experience is common to several characters. One of the characters suffers a gang rape at the age of 13 and tells no one about it. Another character suffers a different sort of rape, an incident of non consensual sex on a first date- and wonders afterwards if she is to blame? The shame and degradation felt by these women afterwards is movingly told. I felt a mixture of sadness and despondency in general at the seemingly irreconcilable desires of young women and men- she wants a regular boyfriend, someone to talk to, he wants a shag-but also outrage that the perpetrator of the rape is a teacher, a respectable member of society, a fact just thrown in lightly, once, by the writer, to make us think about those men who do such damage with impunity.
Of course, the result of early sex, both consensual and not, is pregnancy, early motherhood and fatherless children, and we see that play out across the generations. LaTisha, Carole’s contemporary at school, has 3 children by the age of 21, raising them alone by working as a supervisor in Fruit and Veg in the local supermarket. Two women of earlier generations also give birth as teenagers: one keeps the baby, but has to leave home, and the other gives her baby up for adoption- and we see the stories of those babies weave in and out of the narrative.
One great strength of the novel is its occasional inversion of our expectations. I mentioned earlier Slim being welcomed and accepted into a rural community. There’s a refreshingly upbeat section where his mixed race mother-in-law Grace is orphaned at the age of 8-and you’re immediately thinking Oh no! Jane Eyre! Lowood School! But Grace is sent to the Northern Association’s Home for Girls where the teachers believe in women’s suffrage and giving their girls a decent elementary education so they can earn their own living. Grace is told she has a natural elegance, given confidence and a sense of self worth here, which stands her in good stead in her later relationship with the man she marries, Joseph Rydendale. (And here again, that light touch- he calls her his Queen Cleopatra, the Lady of the Nile-is he exocitising? She reminds him her heritage is Abyssinian, not Egyptian, he tells her gently it’s called Ethiopia these days, part of a humorous and loving banter in their early relationship. We might call this racism now- but should we be critical of him for attitudes prevalent in the past?) But the most shocking challenge to our expectations- and I’m basing that claim on the reaction of my book group and others-is an expression of sexual desire by one of the twelve which feels very transgressive. To say more would be to spoil.
This is a brilliant kaleidoscope of a book, whose characters and lives touch, interconnect, retreat and reappear. Inevitably, with a range of characters, some will resonate more than others, and I have to say I found the sections with Amma and the London luvvies the least appealing. It was when Carole appeared in the second section that I was really gripped and with the stories all the way. The style is pacy and upbeat, particularly with the lack of full stops, which has irked some readers, but didn’t bother me. Yet beneath the paciness there is meticulous plotting, succinct yet vivid portrayal of character and real emotional depth. And some considerable research has gone into the historical sections. The epilogue has the last word, with Penelope investigating her DNA via Ancestry, to see where she comes from, to find her identity. This is a fantastic novel for our times and a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Thank you Bernadine Evaristo.