The Booker Prize announcement was surprising this year not just because there were two winners, or because a black woman was honored for the first time, but because both books are easy reading in a way one never would have predicted. Think of recent winners like "Milkman," "Lincoln in the Bardo" and "The Sellout" — great literary novels, but easy to read? Um, no.
Booker loves socially engaged works, and both winners — Margaret Atwood's "The Testaments" and Bernardine Evaristo's "Girl, Woman, Other" — qualify on that count. But the first is a speculative-fiction thriller and the second is high-end chick lit. This isn't an insult to Evaristo's novel — to me, chick lit comprises heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their protagonists, appealing mainly to women readers. All 12 characters in "Girl, Woman, Other" are black (though one doesn't know it), many are gay, one is genderqueer. Chick lit has been open to minority protagonists for quite some time.
But wait. How can a book that is written in a hybrid of poetry and prose fit into a popular-fiction category? Though Evaristo uses nonstandard punctuation and capitalization, her language is airy, straightforward and completely digestible on one reading. She has mentioned being inspired by Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf," and, like this accessible foremother, her book would lend itself to stage adaptation.
In fact, the frame story of "Girl, Woman, Other" is a theatrical premiere. A central character named Amma is a feminist playwright whose work has never received mainstream recognition — but now she has a show opening at the National Theater.
To give you a flavor for the language of the book, here is Amma:
these days she wears silver or gold trainers in winter, fail-safe Birkies in the summer
winter, it's black slacks, either baggy or tight depending on whether she's a size 12 or 14 that week (a size smaller on top)
summer, it's patterned harem pants that end just below the knee
winter, it's bright asymmetric shirts, jumpers, jackets, coats
year-round her peroxide dreadlocks are trained to stick up like candles on a birthday cake
Evaristo calls it "fusion fiction." I call it clever, breezy and fun.
By quoting this passage I don't mean to imply that the book is shallow or only about what people wear. Actually, it's about almost everything. Politics, parenthood, sexuality, racism and colorism, immigration, domestic violence, infidelity, friendship, love, all the ways we misunderstand each other, the way life surprises us with its unfolding. This is a partial list.
It includes harrowing elements such as a gang rape and an infant ripped away from its mother — though it felt like these were passed over rather quickly. Fewer characters might have been a good idea, but Evaristo is determined not to leave anyone or anything out.
In a scene at a reading group on the island of Barbados, one character expresses the opinion that "poetry was made deliberately difficult so that only a few clever people could understand it as a way to keep everyone in the dark." Another contends "novels was better than poetry books because they had more words in them, poetry books was a rip-off." A third says "it's up to literature specialists to decide what was good."
Bernardine Evaristo is here to turn on the lights, give you your money's worth, and let you decide for yourself.
Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead" (Counterpoint) and the host of the Weekly Reader podcast.
Girl, Woman, Other
By: Bernardine Evaristo.
Publisher: Grove/Black Cat, 452 pages, $17.