Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo was the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 alongside The Testaments by Margaret Atwood which I read earlier this year. It follows the lives of 12 characters, mostly black British women, spanning several decades in four overlapping clusters. In the first part, we are introduced to Amma, a theatre director, her daughter Yazz, and Dominique who is Amma’s former partner in the theatre group. Then there is Carole who works in banking, her mother Bummi and her school friend La Tisha. Shirley is a teacher whose mother Winsome is retired in Barbados and has worked with her colleague Penelope for several years. Finally, Megan/Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer, whose relatives Hattie and Grace were based in the north of England in the early 20th century.

Evaristo’s eighth novel is therefore essentially a series of pen portraits which form interconnected short stories, and overall, I think there is enough world-building here to call it a novel. Some characters were more compelling than others to read about – Carole was definitely one of my favourites – but together they form a diverse chorus which allows Evaristo to explore weighty contemporary themes such as identity, racism and sexism with a lightness of touch. Evaristo is often described as an experimental author, and the prose reads like verse or a play script in many parts. She is particularly good at dialogue which accurately captures the way people speak.

Despite following the Booker Prize for several years, I either haven’t read or didn’t hugely enjoy the majority of the recent winners in the 2010s, but ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ is now one of my favourite modern winners of the Prize. I also highly recommend the recent BBC ‘Imagine’ documentary which profiles Evaristo’s career to date.

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadI have only read one book on this year’s Booker Prize shortlist so far which is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. Her third novel tells the story of Marian Graves, a female aviator who went missing in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the Earth from north to south starting and finishing in New Zealand, while in 2014, a scandal-hit Hollywood actress, Hadley Baxter, portrays Marian in a biopic of her life.

The story is mostly focused on Marian’s life in the early 20th century, while several parallels with Hadley’s life are gradually revealed. Marian and her twin brother Jamie are orphaned following a shipwreck in 1914 and go to live with their uncle Wallace in Montana. In the interwar years, Marian becomes obsessed with aviation, and the passages describing her flights are truly immersive. At times, Hadley’s storyline felt like an unnecessary distraction or forced coincidence, but its significance in the structure of the novel as a whole becomes clearer towards the end. The differences between the film’s interpretation of the more mysterious aspects of Marian’s life and what actually happened to her are particularly intriguing.

Shipstead reveals in the afterword that the original manuscript was 1,000 pages in length and while it has been cut down to a bit more than half of that length and remains a little bit baggy overall, it is still a truly epic piece of historical fiction which very nearly lives up to the scale of its ambition. The winner of this year’s Booker Prize will be announced on Wednesday 3 November and I will be rooting for ‘Great Circle’, hopefully continuing a trend of Booker Prize winners I enjoyed reading and mentioned in my predictions post in July before the longlist was announced, as with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart last year.

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