Some critics have suggested that the decision to award the Booker Prize to two authors detracts from the historic nature of Bernardine Evaristo’s win. A former Booker judge who asked to remain anonymous told The Guardian newspaper, it is a ‘huge disappointment that the chance to make history emphatically was passed by’.
My take required the reading and cerebral dissemination of two incredibly different books, both with great merit. However, I believe that the decision announced by the judging panel on 14 October 2019 was indeed a missed opportunity and a failure to fulfil a self-proposed mandate as laid out in their own charter; that is ‘To select the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK and Ireland.’
Let me introduce the books and then explain my take on both.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
‘Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.’
It is now over fifteen years since the events of Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, and the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead still holds sway, but there are signs of rot from within. At this turning point, the lives of three women converge, and this convergence forms the basis of The Testaments.
Two of the women have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order of Gilead. Their testimonies are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.
As the novel unfoldss, Atwood opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.
When I started to read this book, it was in the hope that Atwood had something new to add to the story of Gilead which first appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. However, though this is a well-written novel, indeed a page-turner, well plotted with compelling characters, I did not find it by any means as strong as its predecessor.
In the first book, everything we learn is from Offred’s limited view. Anything Offred didn’t know, we didn’t know. And so the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale is wonderfully ambiguous. Atwood, at her best, knew just when to finish—and wielded that knowledge with great power.
In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia (undoubtedly the strongest character) notes: ‘Where there is emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity.’ This sets the tone for the novel in which Atwood sets out to conclude the story and to pull down the facade of Gilead, but in doing so reveals too much, and thus The Testaments lessens the power of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale forces us to imagine, fear and hope, while The Testaments, despite the author’s skill, is so predictable that by the time we have read the first third of the novel we already knew where we are headed.
Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is told through one limited perspective, The Testaments uses three plus an epilogue that takes us to a future where Gilead is an archaeological site. Atwood has effectively left nothing to the imagination.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Welcome to Britain and twelve very different people – mostly women, mostly black – who call it home. Teeming with life and crackling with energy, Girl, Woman, Other follows them across the miles and down the years. With vivid originality, irrepressible wit and sly wisdom, Evaristo presents a gloriously new kind of history for this old country: ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible.
Welcome to Newcastle, 1905. Ten-year-old Grace is an orphan dreaming of the mysterious African father she will never meet.
Cornwall, 1953. Winsome is a young bride, recently arrived from Barbados, realising the man she married might be a fool.
London, 1980. Amma is the fierce queen of her squatters’ palace, ready to Smash The Patriarchy with a new kind of feminist theatre.
Oxford, 2008. Carole is rejecting her cultural background (Nigeria by way of Peckham) to blend in at her posh university.
Northumberland, 2017. Morgan, who used to be Megan, is visiting Hattie who’s in her nineties, who used to be young and strong, who fights to remain independent, and who still misses Slim every day.
Girl, Woman, Other is written in twelve chapters, each of which features a title character. The characters are, with the exception of one, black women with a story. They are diverse in background, age, sexuality and sexual identity, and each has a connection to a strong mental character, Amma.
Evaristo’s ability to juggle these differences effortlessly, in time and location as well as in character, demonstrates her scope as a writer. At no stage during the reading of Girl, Woman, Other did I feel that the writing is forced or that the writer is skewing her own perspective to represent the diversity of her characters, but rather that it is an honest attempt to examine what is shared and a celebration of that which is different.
The writing style, described as ‘Fusion Fiction’ – a breaking-boundaries, hybrid prose style that is close to free verse – may not be what every reader expects. Despite, or perhaps because of, the unconventional line breaks and deliberate lack of punctuation, the work reads fluidly and is in parts highly poetic.
Evaristo’s characters are introduced in four sets of three clearly connected characters. However, the engine driving the novel is the ambiguity of the links between the four groups.
The first group comprises Amma, a theatre director who has for years struggled against racism and misogyny and is finally breaking through; her daughter Yazz, a university student; and Dominique, Amma’s onetime life and work partner.
The second group includes Carole, who despite a successful career and a wonderful mind, struggles to overcome rape at the hands of a friend; Carole’s mother Bummi; and La Tisha, sister of the boy who raped Carole.
The third group consists first of Shirley, a school friend of Amma’s who initially seems out of place in the group and in the novel. Oonce an enthusiastic teacher and mentor of Carole, she is now jaded. Second, there is Shirley’s mother, Winsome, who after a working in the UK, retires to Barbados. Finally, there is Penelope who taught in the same school as Shirley before retiring.
The last group is in many respects the most interesting, comprising the non-binary Megan/Morgan who unexpectedly becomes a social media influencer and an activist; their great-grandmother, Hattie, who lives on a rundown farm in Northumberland; and finally, Grace, who was Hattie’s mother.
These four groups form the main cast of characters around which the various stories are told, but Evaristo introduces several other characters while telling us the backstory of the main protagonists. This is a character-rich narrative, yet so adeptly structured that you never feel lost or lose track.
The characters converge at the point where the novel opens and closes, the opening night of Amma’s play, ‘The Last Amazon of Dahomey’, at the National Theatre.
I found this novel rich, rewarding and challenging, though Evaristo’s humour and skill ensures that it is a joy to read.
As everyone now knows, the Booker was awarded jointly to Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
So why do I believe that there was a missed opportunity? Well, first read what the Booker Prize website itself says.
About The Booker Award:
The Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English-speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for over five decades. Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK and Ireland. It is a prize that transforms the winner’s career.
It is a given, therefore, that the Booker Prize judges’ decisions will not always reflect the opinion of any given reader in their choice of winners. However, the prize is supposed to go to one book only and to divide it is unprecedented since 1993 when the one-winner rule was introduced.
So who should have received the prize? Well, based on my reviews, I am sure you will have already guessed who I was cheering for, but what do the winners themselves say?
At 79, Atwood is now the oldest-ever writer to take home the Booker. She first claimed the coveted prize in 2000 for the wonderful The Blind Assassin, and her books have previously made the shortlist. Atwood is already a giant of contemporary literature and enjoyed a commercial hit with The Testaments, which sold 125,000 copies in the United States during the first week after its release, boasting the best opening-day sales of any book in 2019, according to the Washington Post’s Ron Charles.
Atwood has pledged to donate her share of the prize money to a Canadian indigenous charity because she is ‘too old’ and has ‘too many handbags’ to spend the money on herself.
In an interview with the CBC, Atwood said it would have been ‘embarrassing’ had she been the sole recipient of the prize, because awards like the Booker ‘should open doors [not only] for writers but also for readers to become acquainted with books they may have not heard about before.’
Speaking of the Booker Prize, she says:
‘It (the Booker Prize) expands their opportunities and possibilities—not just for the writer, but for the reading community as well. And my book is already doing quite well.’
Evaristo is based in London and has been writing for 40 years. She is well-known in Britain, less so on the international stage. Speaking with The Times following her win, Evaristo said she wrote Girl, Woman, Other in response to a lack of representation in British literature: ‘When I started the book six years ago, I was so fed up with black British women being absent from British literature,’ she explained. ‘So I wanted to see how many characters I could put into a novel and pull it off.’
Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker Award. Her fans and supporters felt the split decision undermined her historic achievement. Evaristo disagrees:. ‘I don’t actually feel that the impact of the prize has been lessened for me,’ she says. ‘No single book is the best book in the world, anyway.’
Evaristo says the funds will go toward paying her mortgage.
In conclusion, I believe that splitting the award was a mistake. This is less about Atwood being undeserving than it is about fully rewarding, validating and celebrating the first black (British) woman to win the Booker Prize.
When accepting the award, Evaristo said she hoped the ‘honour’ of being the first black woman to win the Booker would not ‘last too long’. I agree.