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Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a plot, doesn’t have a particularly linear timeline, and doesn’t have a single focal character. What it is, essentially, is a collection of twelve different, loosely linked character studies that combine to create a sort of picture of black heritage in Britain. 

The twelve narratives are grouped into four sets of three, each set has relatively tight connections with the others in that set, but the four sets are connected sometimes in tangential ways. Each narrative is fully and beautifully told, centring on a black woman but with a lively and diverse cast of supporting characters - sometimes generations of that character’s family, sometimes friends, sometimes employers or offspring. 

Each of the twelve characters is sufficiently different to maintain interest and avoid any blurring between them. They range, for example, from a lesbian theatre dramatist, to a city banker, to a Northumbrian farmer, to a narcissistic schoolteacher. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some of them are happier than others. Taken together, though, they challenge a number of pre-conceptions: e.g. that black skin was not seen in Britain before the Windrush; that the black community is somehow homogenous; that black kids have lower expectations than their white counterparts. We see in great detail the complexity of the backgrounds of many Black Britons; the systematic stifling of ambition and opportunity that Black kids experience; and the power of familial expectations and the perils of wanting something different from life. 

Girl, Woman, Other does have a couple of codas. The first is an after party following the opening of a play by Amma, the star of the first narrative. This brings together some of the characters and offers an opportunity for some set-piece politicking. If the novel has a weak spot, this is it. The second coda is much more powerful, as one of the characters discovers her true heritage. The reader will already have worked this out, but the salient feature is more the character’s reaction than the actual fact of it. 

This remarkable collection of narratives is dauntingly long to start with, but after the first two or three stories it is very hard to put down. It is written in a compelling, immediate style (almost verse like with line spacing and lack of capital letters), and gives a very convincing insight into lives that the reader might never have previously noticed. This is an important work that gives a better understanding of our country, and an appreciation that the story is still being written.

 

*****

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Can only agree with pretty much everything you say, although I didn't find the first coda weak, and am interested why you did.  I was initially put off by the unpunctuated style, but realised quickly that it worked really well - as you say, almost verse-like, and certainly providing the punctuation required to add to both meaning and understanding.  For me, the second coda was fine, but felt it to be a bit of a literarily convenient coincidence, even if it still just about worked.  Overally, though, I found this one of the most vibrant and engaging books I've read in a while.  I picked it up to browse simply out of curiosity after its Booker win, and couldn't put it down - I'm not buying much fiction (using library mainly nowadays), but this was a must.  Didn't regret it for one second, and definitely on the shortlist for my favourite novel, maybe even book, of the year; 6/6.

Edited by willoyd

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I'm glad you enjoyed it Willoyd. 

 

I think the reason I didn't enjoy the first coda is that it made Amma the star - more important than the other characters who were a chorus line. Plus, it seemed arbitrary as to which characters were in the coda and which were not. The strength of the book, for me, was that each of the characters was an equal star in her own narrative and the coda created a kind of hierarchy. 

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