is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruises slowly by…”
PLOT? What plot? Themes, yes we have them agogo – mixed race, London, gender, motherhood etc – but no, no plot. No story. Instead it is an amiable chronicle through its huge cast of assorted, eccentric, rather loveable women of different colours and generations.
The opening pages are a bit like reading the programme notes for Amma’s upcoming play (about fierce female Amazon warriors). There is a cast list of the lesbian underworld, which is quite long as Amma is enthusiastic about spreading her sexual favours as widely as possible, although this is not what you might even loosely term an erotic or sensual work. Beyond this glimpse into a secret cabale, there is not much happening, except we get to deduce that everyone is vaguely linked from school and probably heading to the same event.
I would not have voted for it to win the Booker prize (jointly with Margaret Attwood’s Testaments). Where it is a likeable university project, as a novel it is technically flawed. I mean it is not a good model to hold up for other writers to explore or study or follow. And once again (unlike last year’s brilliant Milkman by Anna Burns) it will probably put more people off reading altogether.
Firstly it is not a novel, it is three separate embryonic novels all of which are left unfinished. The first one she probably wrote a long time ago, the middle one is ripe with promise and potential but unconsummated, the third one is highly topical and omg if the ending is not another story altogether.
Secondly the style of writing, essentially a letter to the sisters or you the reader, prevents any of the characters fulfilling themselves. It is all third party. She did this. He did that. You do not get under their skin, let alone their duvet. We are outsiders in the way all these mixed race immigrants are outsiders on arrival in England. It is also repetitive because this huge cast have similar problems and experiences.
Thirdly the span of the story covers most of the 20th and what we have of the 21st century and lures Evaristo out of her comfort zone. I am a contemporary of one of her main characters Amma and every so often I would question the veracity of the descriptions. Suddenly I am treading on factual quicksand. Ada plays Dusty Springfield, Sonny plays the Rolling Stones, but these details don’t really tally with their ages.
Where Evaristo’s own generational experience shines through is in the middle story of Carole and Bummi. As with her own heritage Bummi’s roots are in Nigeria. There is a very poignant moment here where Bummi believes she has found salvation with a family at last but then her new husband tells her they are going to England to seek their fortune. This story, starting in the Niger Delta, has all the bones of a great novel. But it is only a sketch. It is a pen and ink on paper. It needs some oil paint and canvas.
This is also where the style lets the book down, the writing voice is more gossip than prose, the women barely get a chance to tell their own story, because there are so many of them and because, forgive me, the author keeps interrupting them. It is a landscape of living as mixed race in a white world. It is all narration and without drama, so:
“When she tried to storm out of the house to get away during rows, Nzinga blocked the door with her imposing size, legs astride…”
There is no row, no dialogue, no room, no emotion, no tears, no explanation, no imposing, no opening of the legs…we are just being told about something dispassionately as you might sitting safely around a campfire miles away telling your friends what you had heard.
Later we have:
“Ada Mae married Tommy, the first man who asked, grateful anyone would.”
Wow, that is quite a bald statement, unadorned, little cause, big effect. Ada does not get to share with us, the reader, her own reasons or reactions or responses. This is the same Ada who was listening to Dusty Springfield but she has no silver threads or golden needles to thread her story.
Fifthly, there is a sub theme of self definition which builds cleverly through the different ages and stories but as this evolves it unmasks the hypocrisy of our friend the narrator/author/letter writer/Evaristo herself who is busy self defining everybody around often in quite intimate detail, certainly as far as their sexual choices are concerned.
Evaristo had three, possibly four, singular totemic novels here, rather than the one which is now a hostage to itself. Perhaps the award will give her the chance and confidence to write one of those now that she has been introduced to the big stage.
Most people, most readers, take it for granted that the Booker prize is awarded to the best work of fiction each year, which sort of implies a novel (with a story). There does however seem to be a reactionary rearguard among the judges who vote instead for the clever-clever conceit over and above what I might judge to be more important elements. Stack this one on the same bookshelf as the Luminaries, as Lincoln at the Bardo, as Seven Killings etc. And if you want a decent read, no two great reads, for Christmas, try this one or this one , both of which were on the long list.