Girl, Woman, Other was the joint winner of the Booker in 2019 (shared with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments). It is my book club book for December. As it was recently serialised on Radio 4, I listened to it now. this means I have to remember it until December (it is now July) and it is a complicated book to remember!
A big complication. Is the amount of characters! The book centres around about a dozen main characters from, whom each branch out a network of other characters; lovers, children , friends, and colleagues. Apparently the book is a flow of consciousness with no full stops! This is not so obvious from the radio where can not see the lack of punctuation, but you did get impression of being told expansive stories in just a few lines hence means get a lot of information to take in.
The book is not in chronological order. The book starts with the story of Amma who is a playwright who is preparing for the opening of her play the Last Amazon of Dohomay. The last chapter is the opening of the play when Amma is in her 50s. In between the story, characters are told. This means it is not a book that read to find out what happens in the end. It is in some ways more like a collection of short stories of different characters. That being said however characters, lives do intersect due to them being related to being friends or working together. This means some of the characters do end up at the opening night together therefore it could be said a central theme is about why the different characters are there together at the opening night. However I think this story hides the better story in the book. The story that I’m referring to is so good that before outlining it, I have to￼ warn that the outline contains spoilers!
Major spoilers ahead!!!
Grace and Hattie
Here to remind me for book club is the story rearranged chronologically that I regard as the most interesting of the book which is the story Hattie and her ancestory and descendants.
In the present of the book Hattie is 93 years old, therefore she has children, grandchildren and great Grandchildren. Therefore this could have been a family saga; I have enjoyed family sagas such as those by Penny Vincenzi. Whereas this family broadens my horizons from previous sagas within white families as Hattie is a mixed race woman. Her Grandmother Daisy was white and was impregnated by a seaman from Abysinna when she lived in South Sheilds.
When Grace was eight her Mother Daisy died died to tuberclous subsequently Grace brought up in a girls’s home.
Grace became a maid. She met husband Joe with ginger hair when shopping. Joe had a family farm. This was after first world war so locals shocked by Grace’s looks but warmed to her seen as she had local accent. Grace had several miscarriages / infant deaths before finally having Harriet . Due to trauma having children Grace did not bond with Harriet due to what we would now probably call post partum depression. Finally when Grace’s depression resolves she does bond with Harriet and shortens her name affectionately to Hattie..
Hattie has a baby at 14 years old which she calls Barbara. She is forced to give away Barbara and not tell anyone about her.
Hattie marries Slim in 1945 after meeting him at a dance he was an Americain who had been demobbed from military service. Slim then works on Hattie’s farm. Slim is furious when he finds out that Hattie’s family were descended from slave runners.
Hattie and Slim has a daughter Ada Mary and a son Sonny who are 70 in the book and married white partners therefore subsequently descendants became more ‘white’.
Barbara is left on church steps and later adopted. Barbara is brought up as Penelope
Penelope’shas white skin and unware of her Africain origins, in fact she looks down on Africains.
Penelope’s is only told on 16th birthday adopted and left on the church steps, although there was no way of being aware from the audio of missing punctuation I did get that her story from being found on church steps to marriages and becoming a Grandmother is told in just a few lines. When actually her life is complex and her story is my favourite because so much going on with marriages, children then this mysterious adoption and her growing up unaware of African heritage then finding out and being ashamed this alone could have been such an interesting story but it is squashed between everything else!
Penelope completes teacher training but before gets started on her career marries Giles then soon has a son Adam followed by a daughter Sarah. I jotted down about her divorcing Giles due to physical abuse and think it was only briefly mentioned because as said her lives story told within just a few lines. Follwing her divorce she starts a job as a teacher but only work for 6 weeks before meeting next husband Philip. Again the story of this marriage is rushed over but it ends because he finds younger model.
Penelope’s next lover is Jeramy who I did not really make a note about when I was listening so that did not have much impression on me.
Penelope’s daughter Sarah marries Craig. Has twins Matty and Molly and moves to Sydney.
Sarah does a DNA test for Pennople
Meghan and Bibi
In the book hear Megan’s story before Hattie’s hence do not appreciate at the time her heritage. Her Mother is Julie,I’m not sure whether Julie was Hattie’s daughter Ada-May or son Sonny’s daughter even after relistoning to both Megan’s and Hattie’s story. In this story Hattie is called GG (great gran?). Megan skin looks white.
Thje way Megan is described as a child is basically as a tomboy. As a teenager women she is promiscuous and unhappy with her body. She gets a tattoo at 18. At 18moves out of home to a hostel and starts to ‘find herself’ by researching on the internet. Therefore though social media she meets Bibi who was born a Hindu male, but identified as female. They start a relationship and Meghan becomes genderless by changing name to Morgan.
Morgan does a DNA test for Hattie.
Characters not needed?
My chronological story above omits many characters from the book including:
I do wonder whether the book has too many characters. It feels a bit like there was a box ticking exercise to include diverse range of characters born female or who identified as female i.e white ✔️ black ✔️ mixed race tick ✔️ lesbian ✔️ non binary ✔️ heterosexual ✔️.
In the chronological version without these characters though the reveal that Pennelope is Barbara May not have been so big? With so much information you are not focusing on what happened to Barbara.
Supporting my theory that the centeral story was of Hattie’s family rather than Anna’s play although last chapter is of Anna’s play’s opening night the final words in the epilogue goes to Hattie’s family story. The epilogue segways from the opening night because Penelope is reading g a review of Anna’s plays she thinks it is not for her as she is white and looks down on Africans. In the epilogue Pennople discovers from the DNA test that she has African origins and ultimately Hattie is her Mother and therefore her attitudes to Africans changes.
I would say this book is about who you think you are may not be the same to how you appear to the outside world. You may appear male but feel female or appear white but be mixed race.