W H A T
L I L Y
R E A D
Artwork and words by Lily Evans
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
No-one sums up Bernardine Evaristo’s novel quite like the author herself: ‘this is about being together’
It’s my first five-star review! I would like to begin by requesting that if you have not yet read this book, please go and put it on your list right now. Please.
Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is the story of our times, though it spans multi-generations of women throughout the diaspora. Sitting somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, this is a story of blackness in Britain told in a way that is entirely unique unto itself. Connected by Amma’s theatre performance, Evaristo takes us into the minds of twelve completely different women, though it becomes clear than many are united in more ways than it appears.
‘she will stride up to the client, shake his hand firmly (yet femininely), while looking him warmly (yet confidently) in the eye and smiling innocently, and delivering her name unto him with perfectly clipped Received Pronunciation’
Evaristo’s women really are from all walks of life. From a farm in the North East to a maisonette in Camberwell, however, they are united by a shared black British experience. Race and gender discrimination are the central themes of the novel and its through these themes that Evaristo raises questions as to where feminism gets it right, and where there is significant work to be done.
With this, she tackles difficult topics like colourism and exoticism alongside teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse and sexuality. I found one of the standout stories was one of domestic violence between two women, as the abuser manipulates and weaponises an idea of ‘true feminism’ to be used as a means of control. It was the kind of relationship that I’ve never really seen anyone write about prior to this.
‘On Our Own Terms
or Not At All.’
While Evaristo tackles heavy themes, she does so in a way that strikes the balance between being captivating and …joyous? Each woman experiences struggle – this is certainly not an idealised world – but along with the dry wit found in the voice of every character, there’s definitely a sense of togetherness and something celebratory in the way she writes.
Evaristo’s stories are intricately told and each character has their own distinct voice and idiosyncrasies. As the women delicately weave in and out of each others lives, their connections are often subtle and they don’t feel forced. In terms of the writing itself, this isn’t a conventional third-person narrative. Instead, if you look at it as one continuous tale rather than a collection of short stories, I feel like it reads a bit like an epic poem (sounds weird but it’s not, I promise).
In summary, if Evaristo announced that she was releasing twelve individual novels for each of her twelve characters, you best believe I would buy them all.
Cho Nam-Joo – Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982
Reaching the end of Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, I wanted to lob Cho Nam-Joo’s 2016 novel across my room.
That’s not because I didn’t love it, but because I found it frustrating. Cho’s story of the life of an ordinary Korean woman, from birth to grave, will resonate with women of all ages, of every nationality. Kim Ji-Young is indeed ‘every woman’.
Don’t expect something light-hearted. This is not Bridget Jones’ Diary. Mr Darcy and a pack of fags are nowhere to be found.
If I had to describe this novel in one word, though, it would be ‘important’.
‘Checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice, as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem’ (p. 19)
When Ji-Young starts to act strangely, imitating the personalities of women she knows – her mother, an old college friend – her husband takes it upon himself to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. Here begins the story of Kim Ji-Young, born 1982, brought into the world with prejudice already looming over her: Ji-Young is a daughter in a society that values the son above all else.
In providing a snapshot of life as a woman in Korea, Cho backs up the systematic oppression with cold hard facts and statistics, even going as far as to cite her sources.
I didn’t find this to be overkill, though. Instead, Kim Ji-Young is more than a character in a novel, her experiences are essentially ‘real’. Cho’s use of stats and facts brings a sense of truth to her narrative that warns the reader “don’t you even dare argue with what I have to say”.
‘Help out? What is it with you and “helping out”? You’re going to “help out” with chores. “Help out” with raising our baby. “Help out” with finding me a new job. Isn’t this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don’t you spend my pay, too?’ (p. 131)
Though the novel is about the Korean female experience, Ji-Young’s story is universal. Gender inequality is not a South Korean issue, it’s a global issue. From being warned that coming across too ‘smart’ is ‘taxing’, fending off unwanted advances in work/school/anywhere/everywhere or having to choose between a job and a family are issues that every woman could face in their lifetime. The odds are stacked against women from birth.
This isn’t a man-hating novel though, before anyone starts saying “not all men are like that”. There are plenty of men in the novel that are allies. Cho’s focus, however, is on the systematic oppression of women, the cultural practices that are so engrained that even when Kim Ji-Young’s husband does finally show her some support, it barely scratches the surface. It is not something that can be changed at the hands of a few people, but instead needs to be confronted on a worldwide scale.
Kim Ji-Young gets four stars. A powerful read, but loses a star for the chronological order in which its told – sometimes a strict timeline is a little monotonous.