[I read this 2019 novel in its five ‘chapters,’ writing about each one before reading the next.]
14 May 2020
Chapter 1—Amma, Yazz, Dominique
There’s something satirical about these chapters, Evaristo taking a sideways look at a world she gives the impression of knowing about. There’s more than one world, in fact, although they’re all connected, and Evaristo moves comfortably from one to another. The narrative tone sounds neutral, or she will seamlessly mirror her characters’ different ways of speaking, even thinking…. If we’re not careful, we might accept it at face value. Except, really, it doesn’t take us long to realise that whatever we’re being presented with is a very partial version. We might find ourselves, quite quickly, thinking about how we wouldn’t want to spend too much time with these people. We’d be checking up on whether what we’re saying might be the right or wrong thing—in all three chapters, the named character or somebody they know (or both) thinks they have it all worked out. And they always know what they don’t like about the behaviour or views of other people. Tolerance isn’t a big thing in any of these worlds.
Each name-titled section is told from the point of view of one character, all of them black British women. If we want, we can see them as definite types. Amma is a lesbian in her fifties, proud of her lifelong stroppiness and refusal to play by anybody’s rules but her own. Her chapter, and therefore the whole novel, opens with her breakthrough moment—finally, she has made it into the top flight as a playwright. Yazz is her highly opinionated university-aged daughter, the sort of young person who thinks they know everything. Dominique is a friend and colleague of Amma’s, also a lesbian but never a lover, who moved to the USA in the late 1980s. She was following the new love of her life, and… I’ll let you know how well that turned out. Dominique’s OK—in her chapter, she isn’t the opinionated/intolerant/controlling one.
Amma and Dominique are not from privileged backgrounds but, through hard work in the field of community (and then mainstream) theatre, are able to lead interesting and fulfilling lives through the 1980s and beyond. Yazz is not born into privilege either—her favourite tag of hers is ‘check your privilege’—but her mother and the milieu she inhabits encourage her to have high expectations. Their family and cultural backgrounds, and their own thoughts about these, are key elements in the makeup of them all. For instance, we know that Amma’s immigrant father worked hard for his family, but all she ever focused on when she was younger were his attitudes. He found old-fashioned Leftist politics very comfortable after his difficulties in Ghana, and for Amma he was always the patriarchy personified. She was never close to him although, by the time of his death, she’s starting to regret she never told him she loved him.
Maybe it’s no surprise that Amma, as we might say, has commitment issues in her sexual relationships too. Her version is that she loves sex but hates the kind of demands people make in long-term relationships—and by long-term she means longer than one- or two-night stands. She sees a human yearning for long-term mutual support as neediness on the other person’s part, and will have none of it. If some former lovers don’t like it, it isn’t her problem. Except… when the informal council in the community squat she lives in takes her to task for basically steaming through every available woman who lives there, white or black, she sees it as fascism. What right have they…? etc. But her past nonchalance might be catching up with her. With the advent of social media, some of the women who felt terribly hurt by her behaviour in the past, and let her know at the time—to her sneering annoyance—are now making their feelings known more widely online. I’ll be surprised if we don’t hear from one of these in a later chapter.
And maybe she isn’t as in tune with her own needs as she thinks she is. Yazz is the result of a moment of uncontrollable ‘broodiness’ in her thirties, and as a favour Roland, a gay male friend of hers provides her with what she needs to become a mother. We’re not told how. He stays around, having Yazz every other weekend, so that she always regards him as more than merely her biological father. To Amma’s surprise—she had expected to treasure the weekends free of responsibilities—she misses her daughter when she isn’t there. Maybe the reader, possibly having a better idea of how things work than Amma does, is less surprised than she is. Whatever, Roland is becoming something of a media celebrity while Yazz is growing up, not that it stops her telling him what he’s getting wrong all the time. Amma had encouraged her to believe in herself—you can imagine the way the little girl used to dress—so, by the time she’s at university her friendship group goes by the name of the Unfuckwithables.
And if, slowly, Amma is having to learn things, so is Yazz. A lot of her chapter is about those friends she makes at university in the east of England (presumably UEA, where Evaristo was a writing fellow), and how first impressions shouldn’t necessarily be relied on. The one she seems to like best had been the most conventional-seeming, a white farmer’s daughter from Suffolk who comes to complain about the loud music before joining the dance. Then there’s Nenet, the Egyptian in her jewelled hijab, as sure of herself as Yazz. She has a fiancé doing an MBA in America—this, and the marriage when it comes, all arranged for her in advance. She is as certain of her ground as always when she lets Yazz and the others know they need to be OK with the idea. The fourth is Waris, Somali, not at all well-off, and Yazz wants her to know how gorgeous she is. Appearance, clothing, hair—not all the same thing—are very important in the lives of everyone in this book.
Yazz floats through her first year, working hard and finding little to undermine her robust sense of her own value. She’s much too picky about men to end up with a go-nowhere relationship, which is fair enough, so she isn’t in any relationship at all when the summer vacation comes around. And it’s back in London, with her friends who either live there or are visiting, where some truths come upon her. She, Yazz, isn’t the one making men’s heads turn when there are women like her friends around…. And, even more disturbing than that, come unpleasant truths from Nenet’s world. She invites them to her parents’, a mansion-like place behind walls in the West End. This is privilege that’s in a different league from what Yazz takes for granted, based on money and power. Her father had made his fortune under Mubarak, and clearly money continues to roll in. And Nenet—the one who likes to call herself Mediterranean rather than African as Yazz would like to insist—explains how her life works. She isn’t worried about getting a good grade because she pays for her essays, and that’s how the fiancé will sail through his MBA too.
One of the things I like about Evaristo is the way she either undermines stereotypes or has black women behaving in ways that any liberal reader—i.e. most of the people reading this—will definitely not like. I don’t mean we’re uncomfortable, I mean the ‘types’ she presents go beyond being just types. Successful black women can be selfish, dismissive of anybody outside their own bubble, controlling… just like any other ethnicity and—something that really comes into play in Dominique’s chapter—just like some men. Roland, Yazz’s father, is satirised for his media-luvvie ways not because he’s a man, but because he takes himself too seriously. (As, of course, Yazz delights in telling him.) Whereas in Dominique’s chapter, the person who nearly destroys Dominique seems, on first meeting, to be the ideal black woman in almost every respect.
They meet by accident—although, with hindsight, we might wonder how much of an accident it really was—when Nzinga’s case spills its contents at a railway station. She is American, statuesque, and Dominique immediately knows she’s met the love of her life. But when she takes her to visit Amma, her best friend (until now) is unimpressed by her demands. She can’t even be in the same room as non-vegan food, and this was over thirty years ago when veganism was a new thing. As Dominique sees it, the iciness of the atmosphere comes from the presence of two ‘alphas’ in the same room. She’ll learn what the reader is already guessing: Amma can see how controlling this woman is. In America, where Nzinga insists Dominique returns with her, it gets worse. In the expensive ‘wimmin’s’ settlement financed by a wealthy retired woman, Dominique is soon prohibited from talking to anybody else. Nzinga insists on calling her ‘Sojourner’, a barbed alias if ever there was one and, over time, Dominique finds she is able to do less and less. She can work—Nzinga is helping to design and build the settlement, and the work is hard—but she can’t go shopping on her own, cook, talk to anybody. Nznga doesn’t like what she calls Dominique’s flirting. Then the hitting starts….
Luckily, kindly author that she is, Evaristo allows Dominique to be rescued from the obsessive control-feak’s grip. The owner of the place drives her to a refuge where, over time, she shares her experience of the mental abuse she suffered. The other women in a support group she joins recognise the scenario—although in every case except one, the abuser is a man. Dominique likes this other gay woman with the difficult background and… they end up living happily and successfully ever after doing something fashionably niche.
In these first three chapters, success is regarded as a kind of norm. As I said, these people aren’t born into privilege, but this isn’t BAME life in Britain’s underclass at the time of so-called austerity. These people are doing OK. Amma had been lucky enough from the 80s onwards to get a loft-like space in that squat I mentioned, a former office block, and when the tame landlord who owns it dies and they are thrown out, she benefits from her parents’ deaths and can put a big deposit on a lovely little terraced place in Brixton. You couldn’t make it up. In Amma and Yazz, the framing device (which I’m expecting to carry on for further chapters) is the premiere of that play of Amma’s, about to be performed at the National Theatre. Such things do happen, and this one is a drama about the mind-bogglingly strong warrior women working for an African king in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It’s terrifyingly plausible—by which I mean, Evaristo seems to have chosen the perfect subject for Amma to tick all the necessary boxes. We know it’s a novel, we know we’re not having to believe it, but it’s brilliant. We, like Amma, await the critics’ responses.
Chapter 2—Carole, Bummi, LaTisha
A different chapter and, for me, this might as well be a different novel. The structure is the same—each section 30 or 40 pages long, told from the named black woman’s point of view. We’re presented with all the essential elements of their lives—but I’ve no idea what happened to that clever, subversive irony that made the three sections of Chapter 1 so enjoyable.
From the start, Evaristo’s punctuation strategy of choice has been to demarcate sentences through line-breaks, like paragraph-breaks but without full stops or capital letters. I didn’t mention it when I wrote about the first chapter because a) there was enough to write about anyway and b) I didn’t think it made any difference. I’ve changed my mind about this, because in Chapter 2 she’s giving a far more complete picture of her characters’ lives. Each section feels much more like a mini-biography even than Amma, the section in Chapter 1 that had described most about one person’s life.
The layout becomes crucial to the project. The way that new sentences always come on new lines, with paragraphs and new episodes indicated by a blank line, breaks up the page layout in a way which, I realise, prepares the reader to receive the text in a different way. A life can be presented as a lot of fairly separate packages of information, ideal for an author who has a lot of it to impart. It means that in all the sections of Chapter 2, there’s a huge amount of telling going on.
This was already happening in Chapter 1, I realise, so that by the time Dominique’s life is falling apart in her section, there’s very little left of the nuanced tone necessary for irony to work. It’s perfectly clear what’s happening to her because it’s being told straight. And when the thumbnail biography has done its job, letting the reader know not only that a woman in a lesbian relationship can be as abusive as man in a straight one, Evaristo can swiftly rescue Dominique and bring the story to a close. I didn’t even mention that Dominique and her new partner are able to adopt two children, conveniently orphaned in a drive-by shooting we’re told about a few lines from the end.
The tone in Chapter 2 is earnest. These three women, like those in the previous chapter, are types, all having to suffer things in their lives at least as bad as Dominique’s. But Evaristo isn’t going to go down the women-as-victims route. They are victims, in fact, either of men who treat them badly or of the racist English treatment of well-educated immigrants we’re familiar with from, say, Andrea Levy’s Small Island. But they all, in their different ways, climb out of the pits they’ve been cast into. Life isn’t perfect, and there are scars—or, in La Tisha’s case, three children by different fathers, not one of whom sticks around—but they’ve fought back. I’ve hinted before that Evaristo can stretch credulity if it suits. Or if it lets her take her characters into places where she can deal with some shortcomings of English society, to do with gender, race and class, that she hasn’t fully covered yet.
Take Carole, the daughter of minimum-wage Nigerian graduate parents. As often happens in this novel—Amma’s section, and the others in Chapter 2—we meet her when, for now, she’s arrived somewhere. In Carole’s case, she’s arrived at Liverpool Street Station, where people in banking and finance arrive to work in the City. And she’s one of them. She looks stunning—we’ll soon get plenty of riffs on how a woman, especially a black woman, can’t let up on how she presents herself for a moment—and she’s clearly already a long way up the corporate ladder. Her scars are mental, as we discover straight away, but we’re going to have to wait to find out how she got them. At the station she notices delays to some trains, perhaps, among other things, of a suicide on the line. It’s a thought that simply occurs to her. ‘Carole knows what drives people to such despair, knows what it’s like to appear normal but to feel herself swaying / just one leap away / from’—from what? We have to fill in the blank, because she’s on her way again to an important meeting. This is less than a page into her section.
It’s gang rape when she was thirteen years old. Before that, she’d been the clever one in the awful London comprehensive, keeping her head down until her friend LaTisha invites her to a party because her single-parent mum’s going out. Carole dresses the part, looks far sexier than she or anybody expected, and gets noticed by one of the older boys—young men, really—who gatecrash the party in the way that happens. Out of the tower block they go, with born-yesterday Carole wondering if this could be love… and Evaristo isn’t going to pretend to us sensitive readers that it’s anything other than vile. Carole’s mind focuses on numbers, numbers—she’s a maths nerd—while she’s ‘feeling alien body parts on and in her body that were so private, so gross, she hadn’t even felt them herself / it was hurtinghurtinghurting’
She tells nobody, but spends the next year being as much like LaTisha as she can, doing nothing, mocking the pointlessness of school, on track to being a ‘babymother’ like all the others. But she stops that, asks the old-school ‘Dragon’ of a teacher to help her—much to the derision of LaTisha et al—and, four years later, has a place at Oxford. Her first term is a nightmare of alienation. Nobody is nasty to her, but she understands nothing of any of the social norms and she speaks to nobody. At Christmas she tells her mother—her Nigerian maths graduate mother who cleans for a living—that she’s giving up, and is told robustly, with all the Nigerian patois you would hope for, that oh no she isn’t. So she doesn’t. Instead she re-makes herself—in Bummi, the chapter focusing on her mother, we hear how she loses every shred of her Nigerian roots—and, essentially, becomes what she realises she has to be. She learns about food and wine, sometimes spends weekends in a friend’s stately home, goes out with white men…. The message at the end of her section seems to be—although we hear more in her mother’s section—that to succeed as a black African woman in England you have to lose all trace of your identity. Thanks, Bernadine, got it.
Is Bummi as schematic? Is LaTisha? Yes, and yes. And, increasingly, all that telling becomes intrusive. We get Bummi’s early childhood, the father who was killed siphoning diesel because there was no other way of making a proper living in their part of Nigeria after the oil companies had trashed it. Following his death, his family kicked out Bummi’s mother and kids—African patriarchy is as much a target for Evaristo as any other, although the colonialism is a new thread. Terrible lives, hard hard work. Her mother is finally promoted to a skilled job in the sawmill because she’s more productive than the men—she works harder, obvs—but it kills her. Dangerous things, circular saws. Poor Bummi, pillar-to-posted until she ends up with an aunt who treats her like a servant. I can’t remember what break enables her to get to university, but hard hard work is involved.
Are we nearly there yet? Nope. Meets genuinely nice man, another mathematician with business plans. But Nigeria is hopeless if you don’t know the right people—Evaristo’s readers, people like me, have read enough novels by African ex-pats for her not to need to say much about this—so they try England. Cue Small Island experiences. He’s an overworked taxi driver, she’s a cleaner, Carole is the daughter they deliberately give an English name to because they know how it works now. Their surname is Williams, which also helps later in job applications. Lovely dad dies of undiagnosed heart problems on New Year’s Eve… Carole does OK anyway, in spite of that odd year of moping and rebelling, so what’s an empty-nester to do? She gets money to start a small cleaning business—it’s a loan from a corrupt pastor who milks his congregation, which she gets by way of a ‘transaction’ involving him having to unzip his trousers and her to lie back and think of the money—and meets a new love. It’s a woman, although that doesn’t last forever, but she does all right. Meets another nice man, Carole’s privileged white husband turns out to be all right too, and Carole rediscovers her roots through his genuine interest in the exotic world that’s all new to him.
Are you believing any of this? Does it matter, when so many boxes are getting ticked? And there’s only the true BAME social housing underage pregnancy one to get through now. LaTisha learns the hard way, but learn she does, at night school, after she realises that her attitude in her teens has got her absolutely nowhere. She’s a checkout girl with a kid, then two kids, and she does what women do in this chapter. OK, she needs to slip up again on a first date, with the same man who raped Carole with his mates five or six years earlier, so now there are three kids… but, living in the council flat at the top of the 36-storey block with her mother and sister who’s been traumatised to find out Daddy isn’t her daddy—he moved on out years ago—she realises it’s time to get started. The chapter had opened with her as the manager of a supermarket, having done A Levels and now doing an Open University management course. She’s Thatcherite Victorian values in the 21st Century.
For some reason, the chapter ends with the father returning home after the American woman he went to live with turns out not to be the right one after all. It’s taken him a lot of years to find out—and I’m wondering if he simply left a note with her, as he did when he left LaTisha’s mother. Whatever…
Are there any links between these three stories and those in Chapter 1? The only direct ones are that at school, Carole had had always thought of LaTisha as archetypal ‘babymother’ material and, in the present-day timeline, decides not to attend the premiere of the lesbian play about warrior women her husband is going to. And what about schematically? Other than Evaristo seeming to want to cover absolutely everything regarding gender, class and race, incorporating colonialism and its attendant attitudes, patriarchy and male entitlement, and almost anything else you would care to think of? And we’re only half-way through what is beginning to feel like a torrent. She’s telling it fast, she’s telling it urgently, and my God.
Chapter 3—Shirley, Winsome, Penelope
Am I as convinced by this novel as I was after one chapter? The first thing I wrote was that this is ‘a world she gives the impression of knowing about. There’s more than one world….’ And there’s the rub. It strikes me Evaristo doesn’t know every world as well as she appeared to at first. She’s worked in the theatre, she knows about university life in the east of England—which, between them, cover the first two sections of Chapter 1. But now I’m wondering whether she ever set foot in a comprehensive school in the 80s and 90s. The imaginary Peckham school where Shirley and Penelope work owes more to Grange Hill than the ILEA schools that became nationally famous, often given their particular progressive edge by women. In no school I knew at that time did only the men go to the pub. And nor were women patronised like the hapless ‘ladies’ in a Harry Enfield 1940s sketch.
What’s my complaint? It’s that what I’ve been calling Evaristo’s schematic approach is now coming to rely more and more on tropes. What boxes does Shirley tick, the idealistic young history teacher of Barbadian heritage, the one whose sheer enthusiasm in the classroom carries the day until she becomes more and more jaded by the changing demographic, the lack of parental support, the top-down curriculum directives? We know from the start that she will become ‘Mrs King’, the hated ‘Dragon’ (or worse) we met in Carole and LaTisha’s chapters. We also see how important Carole was to her and, as Carole saw it, why she was keen to take the credit for her success. Yes, she did that, but we can see why, by then, she had become too needy to pretend the girl did it all for herself. She didn’t, and it’s the first success Shirley herself had achieved in years.
So many women, Evaristo seems to be saying, have something to prove. They aren’t to be blamed for it, because if they don’t prove their value in whatever ways they can, their gender, class and/or race will make sure they don’t receive it as a matter of course. Often, a character will rue the way that men, or white people, or posh people or whoever take promotions, or service in bars, and the rest of it completely for granted. Men just don’t get it. White people don’t get it. What’s a woman to do but fight (Amma), reinvent herself (Carole and LaTisha, in different ways) or learn how to relax—admittedly after a lifetime of hard work (Bummi and Winsome)? If they don’t, they’ll end up at best jaded (Shirley, collapsing in exhaustion every weekend and every school holiday) or at worst broken (Penelope).
Have I said enough about Shirley? The only really good things in her life are her wonderfully supportive and good-looking husband and, as we discover in her mother Winsome’s chapter, the chance to spend her summers in Barbados after her parents retire there—another unintended outcome of council house sales in the 1980s and beyond. There’s a kind of coda to Shirley’s life in Winsome, a hint of how her marriage kept going. In middle age, before leaving England, Winsome had found herself lusting after Shirley’s husband Lennox. And, after a while, he finds a way to reciprocate, athletically and satisfyingly, for well over a year. It doesn’t go on forever… and we have to guess that he’s moved on. Presumably, Winsome hadn’t been the first and she isn’t the last. But then, even best of men in this novel have feet of clay. Or some other body part of some other material. (The only exceptions I can think of are Bummi’s husband, who was lovely until he was dead, and Winsome’s, who is nice enough but dull. Brain of clay, perhaps, or fried plantain. You can see why she looks for kicks elsewhere.)
What else in Winsome? A lot of her chapter is straight Small Island with a dash of Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (referenced, as it happens, when Winsome’s book group in Barbados—yes, really—choose it and decry the invisibility of women in it). The lean times in 1950s London, the eye-watering prejudice in the West Country where they go to follow her husband’s silly dream of becoming a fisherman again, the grind of the jobs they do for decades back in London. Working on the buses? Check. She has no sympathy for Shirley, thinks of her complaints about teaching (‘a cushy job’) as all she would expect from the daughter she always found lazy—and who never lifts a finger on those Barbados holidays. Winsome is a woman of her time—Shirley always hated how only she had to help with the housework as a child, while her lazy brothers did nothing. Unlike them, she succeeded at school although, inevitably in this novel, they ended up with better-paid, more respectable jobs.
Does Evaristo actually like any of her characters? Sure, she looks to why they are like they are, needy and judgmental—oh, the judging!—and quick to excuse their own behaviour. But that doesn’t stop her portraying some of them as fairly toxic people to spend time with. I mean, whole chapters. Take Penelope, for instance, the only white woman to take centre stage so far. She’d been a bit-part player in Shirley, as the older, hippyish teacher who considers herself feminist enough to call out the sexist men in her school at staff meetings. She raises points they know they’ll ignore, almost as if that’s the point—but when Shirley tries to say something in her third term there it’s Penelope who gives her a tongue-lashing for daring to disagree with her.
Basically, as a human being, Penelope is pointless. Dates in this novel are always imprecise, but it must be the 1960s when she marries the dishy boy she had started going out with at school, gets her teacher training qualification and then stays at home because her husband expects it. Her awakening is predictable and only ever partial, the husband leaves for a younger model—as does her second, more right-on husband some time later—because her biggest attraction was always her looks. Are we to pity her for the pain of the realisation that the rules for women are so damned unfair? Difficult, because Evaristo has made her so unlikeable. But it’s not easy to answer exactly whose fault it is that she is so unlovable that even her grown-up children find her company unbearable. So do we—and the 30 or so pages of her section aren’t ever enough to get us on her side. If hers is the tragedy of the unfulfilled woman, she’s the only one shedding tears about it.
So, am I liking the book? Not really, not now. Rather than explore these lives fully, Evaristo has taken the decision to make her well-signalled points through a few key moments and a whole lot of telling. I wonder if she will be able to bring these threads together beyond her technique of occasionally showing us the same thing from different angles. That, like her apparent determination to cover every possible aspect of women’s experiences since the mid-20th Century, does not make either for character development or for any real empathy on our part. Let’s see how the rest of it goes.
Chapter 4—Megan/Morgan, Hattie, Grace
Another chapter, another approach. This is a variant on the family saga, far more ambitious in its historical scope than we’ve had previously—in all the previous chapters a mother and daughter each get a section, but there are only tiny glimpses of earlier generations. Here, after a sympathetic great-grandmother appears in Megan/Morgan, we’re taken all the way back to the 19th Century. Evaristo does it through that favourite literary standby, the ancient farmhouse. Most of the bases she’s covered up to now have been urban, but Britain has a record of exploiting ethnic minorities wherever they turn up like, for instance, the rural north-east of England. And what about that other big thing in the history of this country, slavery? Don’t worry, she’s on it.
I have no idea how Evaristo writes, so I should stop imagining her mental checklist of what she ought to be covering. But the new things just keep coming. Like, by having a character meet and marry a black GI from the deep south, we can get a graphic description of the true horror of a lynching, as happened—I’m not making this up—to his brother before the war. Or we can have the discovery of the documents kept locked away almost forever, like a physical manifestation of the family’s shame—which make it clear that the ancestor who built the farm made his money by trafficking slaves. But, as those who look carefully at her portrait come to realise, the wife he brought over from the Caribbean definitely had African blood. It’s becoming like a mashup of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and David Olusoga’s A House Through Time. That’s OK. Both those shows can be revelatory about Britain’s past.
Megan/Morgan, as we guess, covers the ‘Other’ part of the novel’s title. Megan’s upbringing is archetypal, all pink dresses and—something else I’m not making up, but Evaristo often goes for the broad brush in this novel—her mother’s insistence on buying so many Barbie dolls it becomes a collection. It isn’t only her upbringing that’s archetypal, so is Megan herself. She hates all this almost from birth, and goes through the classic stages. Tomboyishness, hatred of her developing breasts, hatred of all the things her old-fashioned mother insists on—it’s as though her liberal duties have been completed through her marrying an African, who is no help to Megan at all. Evaristo goes for another archetype—African men are not known for their open-mindedness on issues like sexuality—and Megan’s adolescence is miserable. She is so mocked at school she leaves without qualifications, gets a job that lets Evaristo riff on McThis and McThat, and is on a drug-fuelled downward slide by her late teens.
But… she does what all Evaristo’s strong woman characters do—not that this author would dream of using the adjective that has become a very tired cliché—she picks herself up and starts all over again. Cold turkey, recovery, and the discovery through the Internet of a whole trans world. Luckily she learns absolutely everything about it—letting us have a glimpse too—through meeting a de facto mentor online. This is Bibi, an Asian transsexual who is now physically a woman, and who becomes her life-partner when they eventually meet. (The other sections of Chapter 4 contain other happy chance meetings, of life-changing soulmates from a different world.) And the good fortune doesn’t stop there. ‘GG’, her great-grandmother, had always loved her for who she was, used to let her behave however she wanted during childhood summers spent on her farm, and is happy to receive Bibi too when the time comes. She loves them both so much that in her will she names Megan (now Morgan) to inherit the farm. It’s a mess by now, and the son and daughter who left the farm as soon as they could won’t like it, but hey.
I didn’t mention that Morgan has become non-binary in adulthood, and chooses the route of being referred to as ‘they’. Evaristo sticks with that pronoun from the moment of Morgan’s decision. Another box ticked? You decide.
The farm. Hattie is the great-grandmother who has lived there since she was born in the 1920s and, in the pantheon of strong women in this novel she even outdoes Amma. What she wants she works hard to get, and bugger the rest of them. If and when they come for her to put her in a home, she will pretend to go along with it, will ask to go to the toilet before leaving, and will blow her brains out with her husband’s GI-issue revolver. Clearing that up will give them something to think about. There’s a set-piece scene in her section, based on what she calls ‘Greedymas’, the annual family celebration. (What would a farm-based family saga be without its set-piece celebration, from Far from the Madding Crowd to Cold Comfort Farm?) She hates her son and daughter for leaving—the reader hates them too, because they are really unpleasant people and do everything they can to deny their black heritage—and their adult children are as bad. One of them, of course, is Megan/Morgan’s mother. She might have married an African, to the displeasure of all her relatives but Hattie, but she’s otherwise as blinkered as the rest.
I’m doing what this novel seems to invite me to do, judging everybody for their right and wrong opinions. Ah well. There isn’t a bit of Hattie that doesn’t fall into the ‘right’ camp. The daughter of a descendant of the original farm-owner and the half-‘Abyssinian’ woman who is the product of an unfortunate one-night stand in the 1890s, she becomes her father’s hope as a saviour of the farm. Which she is. Her mother is Grace, who we’ll read about properly in the last section, and she had lost several children before Hattie. She is the farm’s last chance and, especially after meeting and being charmed—for the first time ever, by any man—by the GI, she and he make a real go of it. It’s a mess now, but for decades it was well-run and profitable. It’s a pity everybody else left.
Grace, Hattie’s mother, has one of those Who Do You Think You Are? lives. Her own mother, after her unfortunate encounter with the black African—‘Abyssinia’ becomes an exotic paradise in the stories she tells Grace—brings her up as well as she can. Which is wretchedly, aside from the utterly unconditional love she gives her. She works at whatever she can but succumbs to one of the tuberculosis outbreaks of the time. There would normally be no net to catch Grace, but luckily—how many times have I used that word?—a vacancy has just come up at the home for girls run by liberal women interested in giving them a start in life. Grace eventually comes to realise her mother will never be coming to fetch her, and is rather a good student of the domestic arts—but one time she has to be warned, on pain of expulsion, to curb her natural exuberance. She gets the best job any half-African in her position would hope for, as a maid in one of the big houses.
And there she stays, becoming more and more jaded and exhausted by the injustice of the white girls always doing better than her, in spite of her quick wit and readiness to work, until she dies unhappily. Only joking. Instead, the son of the owner of one of the biggest farms locally meets her by chance. He’s back from the War, sound in mind and body, luckily —we’re told this explicitly—and he has fond memories of the north African women he met in Egypt. She becomes his Queen of the Nile (I’ll resist saying you couldn’t make it up) and, once his old-fashioned father is dead, which he soon is, they can marry. She soon gets rid of the useless maid and cleans the place up, top to bottom, more or less single-handed. Her new husband is happy to pay for new everything, the sex is good—maybe he learnt how to give women pleasure during the war—and all is well. But into each life…. She miscarries twice before having the most beautiful baby girl. She dotes on her for the first days and weeks, and then months are counted off. We know where it’s going, and one morning Grace wakes to find the child dead. One more try? Yes, in desperate acts of sex in which all pleasure is gone… and they have Harriet. But Grace just knows she’ll die, never bonds with her, and has a breakdown lasting over two years, it seems hopeless, but, luckily….
Enough. Any bases covered that I haven’t mentioned? Probably, but it’s time to read on.
Chapter 5, The After-party, and Epilogue
I’s become a real problem that this novel is so transparently agenda-driven. All it means that when Evaristo gathers a lot of her characters together in The After-party, it’s mainly about her revisiting some favourite themes and—being the kind of author she is—some favourite targets. The men are the worst, obviously, with Roland’s unattractive mix of arrogance and neediness—he needs at least as much confirmation as Amma, who he mocks for it—and Sylvester, the die-hard agitprop community theatre guy that Amma still knows, although she left his milieu behind decades ago. And now Evaristo can really go to town on that thing where we get one character’s (almost invariably negative) view of another, or diametrically opposed view of the same experience. Is it just in this novel, or is Evaristo herself like this, always judging, always clear in her reasons for not liking what somebody is saying?
And I’ve changed my mind about what I think about Chapter 1, especially the sections featuring Amma and Yazz. Now, I don’t think there’s anything satirical about the way Amma is presented, I think we’re supposed to accept those little peccadilloes of hers as realistic aspects of a fully-rounded, but essentially admirable black woman. From what she says in interviews, Evaristo sees both herself and Amma as welcome role models for a generation. Girls, you can become like us! (In the same interviews, she explains how she hadn’t exactly planned to cover twelve different characters’ experiences, but that’s how it came out as she began to write. She had wanted to cover ‘a lot of women’s experiences’, and this was how she ended up doing it. Yep. And it becomes clearer and clearer as we read how checklist- and agenda-driven it is.)
Any more about the after-party? For one chapter only, Evaristo goes for third person omniscient, so we get points of view switching as she goes. We know how poor Shirley is feeling, frumpily dressed and longing to catch up on that night’s Bake-off. She’s the fish out of water here, the one who never got it about the black sisterhood. She hates the way everybody dresses, obviously, and they in turn hate how she looks. She squirms when she has to be at the bar with Dominique, over from LA for a 24-hour visit and dressed like someone half her age, and Dominique is hating it too. But Dominique doesn’t get it all her own way—she later tells Amma how her women’s festival had almost been cancelled after a certain Twitter influencer conjured up a storm of protest about her wanting to exclude transsexuals. Her reasons are those that got Germaine Greer de-platformed at the Oxford Union a year or two ago: anyone born male does not have the same experience as anyone born female, so can’t be included. She, Dominique, had had to give in. (The joke, of course, is that we know exactly who the influencer is, the person nobody seems to know who is standing around looking as much like a man as a woman. How we laughed.)
And so on. It’s quite a short section, because Evaristo has an epilogue to get through. And why on earth, we might wonder, is it from the point of view of pointless Penelope? Alert readers (i.e. not me) might well have guessed, from two little details I didn’t even mention as I wrote. She, Penelope, was adopted by very dull couple in York, and couldn’t wait to get away to London to be dull in her own way. Which she achieves. In Hattie’s chapter, we discover that at the age of fourteen she was made pregnant, I forget who by, and that she had to give the little girl away. So, when Penelope’s daughter tells her it’s now legal to find out about who one’s parents are, she takes a DNA test, and finds the results undermine everything she thought she knew about herself. Evaristo prints it in full—it feels like she’s checking the tick-box labelled ‘no such thing as racial purity’—and, my God, why is there so much African in there?
Yes, really. Harriet’s long-lost daughter, arriving at the farm in a state of utter upheaval, finally meets her for the first time. And, following the realisation that ‘the lifetimes between them no longer exist’ (Evaristo means lifetimes of separation, I guess), ‘this is about being / together’. There it is, on its own, to end this novel about how everybody—including the author—keeps judging, separating, creating little bubbles of self-affirmation. Girls and boys, she seems to be urging, we shouldn’t do it. You need to realise that when you get down to it, we’re all in this
Nah. I’m sorry, but one little narrative twist, a favourite of authors since at least the 18th Century, simply can’t carry such weight. What has happened is that a minor, unlikeable character is taught a lesson for being racist. It’s the mother of all put-downs, and it’s classic Evaristo.