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Class, Culture And Sexual Identity Take Center Stage In 'Girl, Woman, Other'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This year, Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize for Fiction. She won for her eighth novel, called "Girl, Woman, Other." By the way, in another first ever, Evaristo was one of two winners of this year's Booker. Margaret Atwood was also given the prize for "The Testaments," her sequel to "A Handmaid's Tale." Up until now, Evaristo's novels, many of which are written in a mix of verse and prose, have not been well known in this country. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that all changed with the American publication last month of "Girl, Woman, Other." Here is Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize-winning novel "Girl, Woman, Other" is structured around the opening night of a play called "The Last Amazon Of Dahomey." It's written by a woman named Amma, who's made a name for herself mostly in radical lesbo experimental theater. But this new play about African women warriors in the 18th and 19th centuries is debuting not in some fringe theater space, but at the mainstream National Theatre in London. It turns out to be a hit.

At the after-party, one of Amma's friends expresses relief to himself that this new play is a far cry from the agitprop rants of her early theater career. As a reader, I shared his relief. Let me explain. "Girl, Woman, Other" is described as a polyphonic novel about the intersections of identity. It's told from the point of view of 12 British women of color who range in age from 19 to 93. The women represent a diversity of classes, cultures and sexual identities.

Evaristo presents their stories in a free-flowing fragmented style that she calls fusion fiction, all of which can make "Girl, Woman, Other" sound like, if not agitprop, a call to duty rather than pleasure. The opening does little to alleviate this worry, given that it focuses on Amma and her teenage daughter Yazz both of whom bask in self-righteousness. But as the novel moves along, something wonderful happens - humor materializes. As seriously as Evaristo's characters take themselves and the issues like racism that intrude on their lives, there's also a witty dimension to their stories. Many of these women are onto themselves and each other.

"Girl, Woman, Other" turns out to be a nuanced and entertaining novel about women of color in contemporary Britain. Though some of Evaristo's characters harbor fantasies of Amazon girl power, most are just trying to make it through the battle of daily life. Take Carole, one of these foot soldiers - born in London to Nigerian immigrants, she survives a rough school and a traumatic gang rape to earn a scholarship to Oxford. So far, this is a familiar first-generation, up-from-poverty story. But listen to this description of Carole's first week at Oxford, made all the more arresting by the repetitive rhythm of Evaristo's run-on sentences.

(Reading) She overheard loud reminiscences about the dorms and drugs of boarding school, Christmas holidays in Goa, gap years spent building a school for the poor in Kenya. Most students weren't like that, but the really posh ones were the loudest and the most confident, and they were the only voices she heard. 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 been on a plane, seen a play or the sea or eaten in a restaurant with waiters.

There's lots more, but that incantatory catalogue of all that's left out shines a light on all the people, like Carole, who are left out, too. Where's that humor I was talking about, you may be wondering? Well, it arises in the marathon response of Carole's Nigerian mother, to her announcement that she's going to drop out of Oxford. Here's a snippet.

(Reading) Did me and Papa come to this country for a better life, only to see our daughter giving up on her opportunities and end up distributing paper hand towels for tips in nightclub toilets or concert venues, as is the fate of too many of our country women? Bested, Carole returns to Oxford. Now an adult, she's present at that opening night of Amma's play. So is her old high school teacher, who turns out to be a childhood friend of Amma's. In this highly designed novel, almost everybody is just a couple of degrees of separation apart.

When Evaristo won this year's Booker Prize, along with Margaret Atwood for her novel, "The Testaments," a controversy erupted because only one novel is supposed to be anointed. Most critics think that Evaristo's novel should have won. If forced to choose, I'd agree. But there's a lot of overlap between Atwood and Evaristo. Both have such a zest for storytelling. Both are proudly feminist in their politics. What a year to get two such novels. I say do yourself a favor and read them both.

BIANCULLI: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo. On Monday's show, our guest will be actress Charlize Theron, who stars as former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in the new film "Bombshell." She'll tell us about transforming herself physically for the role, and she'll talk about growing up on a farm in South Africa during apartheid and being raised by a strong mother. I hope you can join us.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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