In some ways this a book that should not work; aside from the punctuation, it is all told. Bernardine Evaristo brings us a series of talking heads who report what has happened to them rather than plunging us into scenes. Writers are often instructed to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ because so few writers can tell well. Bernardine Evaristo is a supremo at telling. This combined with the way she weaves her story back and forth through time are just a few of the reasons that this is a truly original novel, a real literary great.
The characters get better and better – each has a distinct voice which doesn’t so much as lift off the page as pole-vaults off it. Through them, we get to experience every facet of human emotion – the harrowing aftermath of rape, the way a mother refuses to let her child drown under the weight of mental health problems, an enthusiastic young teacher ground down after years of the relentless ungratefulness of her pupils who she constantly tries to mould better futures for. But this is no depressing novel, it is uplifting, beautiful and the humour is abundant and effortless. A wonderful moment was Hattie’s failure to grasp her grandchild’s non-binary status, calling her friends ‘those non binding people’ yet she has huge love for her grandchild and her friends nonetheless.
I read this book on my Kindle, but will be buying the paperback as soon as it comes out. It should be required reading in schools, but perhaps that might take some of the joy out of it. I can certainly see it spawning a thousand English Literature degree theses. A book that deserves to be pushed into the hands of everyone, it feels like its pages contain the whole world.
Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, and The Maid’s Room both published by Hodder & Stoughton.