The Mercies is a bleak, cold, tale that chills you through and makes you grateful for modern comforts and the distance we’ve come in female autonomy.
It’s set in the most remote northern corner of Norway in 1617. At the start, the island’s male population are all lost in a freak storm, leaving the women of the island to get by alone. But 1617 is the time of witch trials and independent women are suspicious in the eyes of a puritanical church.
It’s the kind of book that made me pour over maps and want to train up in some basic skills. The writing is wonderfully sparse to reflect the nature of the content, and there’s also a pleasing gay love story to keep the chill from becoming too unbearable.
This Mournable Body is a beautifully written, psychologically insightful but, for me, excruciatingly uncomfortable story.
The main character, Tambudzai, is trying to prove herself in Harare and forget the village homestead she grew up in. The trouble is that Tambu is deeply unlikeable: from the very start when she witnesses a sexual assault on a bus, through her bitterness, pride and snobbery it’s clear that this is a deeply flawed character. But it’s written in the second person, putting you, the reader, in the shoes of this sour, selfish woman.
It’s clever and it’s skilful, and I suppose if I were braver it would be an amazingly route to empathy, but I’m afraid it just made me defensive and distressed. The critical consensus is that This Mournable Body is a masterpiece, but be sure to go into it ready to be bracingly challenged and with your sense of self intact!
Buzz: Winner of the Booker Prize 2019. Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller.
Throughout my childhood and teen years my mum would slip upstairs every evening for a bath and her very own Precious Stolen Moments with a book. Now, I see she was trying to carve out a tiny bit of peace, but then, it was just a chance to get my mum all to myself. And we did have some great bath chats. It was during that time I decided I wanted to write a book: a perfect, epic tale, written in two perspectives and showing a mother’s life before she became a mother, and a daughter slowly coming to understand her mum as more than just a mum. Miscommunication would be key, but there would be a sweetness when the jarring perspectives crossed in a precious, fleeting moment of understanding.
I never wrote it, of course. But it was still the book I wanted to read.
Now, 30ish years later, I’ve just finished Bernadine Evaristo’s magnificent Girl, Woman, Other.
It starts with the perspective of a mother, Amma, who is so very much more than that: an agitator, an artist, a King’s Cross squat-dweller and a polyamorous lesbian. Then it cuts to her daughter Yazz’s point of view; struggling with identity politics and perennially embarrassed by her successful parents.
To say, even with these first two perspectives, that this is the book I’ve been dreaming of for decades, is to massively undersell Evaristo’s searingly unique characters. And that’s before we even start to spin through the next 10 women’s stories. Because Girl, Woman, Other covers vast amounts of space and time, both physical and psychological.
In any other hands, it would be hard to imagine the dizzying breadth of this holding together. This is twelve separate stories. Twelve women of colour with backgrounds ranging from Peckham council blocks to the swamps of the Niger Delta to a farmhouse in the Northumbrian countryside. It’s an authentic diversity of perspectives, where ‘diversity’ isn’t a token representative speaking broadly for each ethnic group, but where individuals are seen as that, without undermining the power of the groups they belong to — working class/upper class, liberal/conservative, urban/rural, Nigerian/British/West Indian/American, girl/woman/other. An exploration of intersectionality.
And the structure of the book reflects this: these twelve stories each exist in their own world with no single narrative arc connecting them. There are, however, loose threads. Some explicit, with characters related to each other, some touched on glancingly — just enough to make you scan back through the chapters to check if you’ve got it right. Each thread adds to a fragile web strong enough to hold your interest, until they’re all pulled tight at the end and tied in a satisfying bow.
As the stories of each new character unfold, the book demands you recalibrate your understanding of an earlier section. No one character sees another fully, without prejudice, which allows the reader, too, to assume the profile they’ve read is just a glimpse; warped and incomplete. Piecing together each new perspective to get a slightly more substantial view of the whole is immensely satisfying. But more satisfying still, is the simple humanity of the characters. I’ve rarely read characters that feel this much like real people, rather than fictional conceits. These are the people you see in the street and wonder momentarily about their world and inner life. It’s your workmates, your cousins, your friends and their parents laid bare. To read this feels privileged.
I loved the humanity, the subtlety, the originality, the feminism and the Britishness of Girl,Woman, Other. And I loved the miscommunication and misunderstandings; they made the fleeting moments when characters truly saw each other all the more sweet.
Back in the humid bathroom of my teen years, it’s exactly the sort of book I could imagine my mum leaving wet fingerprints on, then passing on to me, hoping to share something true by reading the same pages. And I can imagine this book being passed around woman to woman like a prize, as we slowly come to understand each other as more than just a mum, just a girl, just a woman, just an ‘other.’
Published: Penguin, 05 March 2020.