This is a highly recommended book for both this site, and more readers in wider circles. This novel shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is a book I didn’t particularly like at all, so the idea of it sharing this prize is especially galling to me. That said, there’s a kind of funny irony about Margaret Atwood, perhaps as a stand-in for “white feminism”, co-opting the celebration of this novel–a multi-voiced, multi-generational, highly-intelligent, Queer, witty, sympathetic, portrayal of twelve–mostly Black women–characters in the UK–that feels a little on the nose.
If you’ve read other Bernadine Evaristo novels (and this is my third now) you’d recognize a confident voice, a knowledge of history and a history of epistemology that is either present in the writing of the book (as in her retelling of empire in Blonde Roots) or present in the characters (as in Mr Loverman whose titular character is an auto-didactic critical theory expert), or both, as in this novel.
So the novel is told through twelve distinct sections in a close third person (with one section that dips into first person–a grandmother telling her great grandchild about her youth), and all but one of the chapters is told by a different Black woman in the UK in a variety of time periods, milieu, social class, and situation. The section not told in this way is told by a gay Black man who is the father of one of the other lead characters (her mother is another section) so throughout the novel we experience a constant stream of narrative that challenges UK whiteness but containing almost no white voices and only a small handful of white characters. In addition to this many of the chapters greatly challenge UK heteronormativity as well.
I won’t say too much about the plot, as much as there is one, but the different voices in the narrative capture the characters and whatever story is told through those voices. Instead, for me, the structure is what stands out. In so many books we get a family tree at the beginning to either spell out the family structure or in some cases (Wuthering Heights) the ways in which the story challenges traditional families. To create that for this story, we’d need a kind of web, that show the specific connections among the different characters and some way to show how the timelines line up, because the connections are not linear and the timelines are not clean. Instead, we start with a young woman meeting up with friends and thinking about her creative life, we switch to decades later as we consider her daughter, then we move back in time and laterally back to the original character’s close friend and so on. The book’s structure also challenges neat timelines and heternormativity by showing the clear and strong connections among people regardless of whether they’re related or not.
The book also explores ideas about British and colonial Blackness, Queer identity, age and ageism, gender roles, Conservatism, Brexit, art, creativity, domestic violence, sex, sexual violence, and lots of other different parts of the lives of these characters.