From a writer’s perspective, it is easy to see why the current climate would be considered worthy for novels. The last few years, from 2016 onwards, have felt significant and dangerous, as though a lot of history and feeling was finally, reluctantly resurfacing. From President Trump’s horrific ascension and Brexit’s mindless prominence, to ‘Black Lives Matter’ still somehow being radical, the turmoil of this period is akin to that of the 1960s and 70s when Britain and America were on the verge of economic and social collapse. In short, we’ve been here before, and quite rightly, writers have tried as of late to address it in fiction.
However, amongst all the similarities, differences do of course arise. A lot of the current upheaval is social and cultural, certainly in the UK, and the country seems to be wrestling with its own identity, posited against or alongside Europe. This implicitly draws whiteness, heterosexuality, and gender roles into the conversation, as our old ideals are those of Churchill, Thatcher, Nelson, Empire – straight, white, stale. It’s depressing to type.
Conversely, a younger and more urban generation are attempting to dismantle that ideal in favour of diversity, freedom, and creativity; not the colour-blind myths of the 60s and 70s, but an acknowledgement, acceptance, and a celebration of difference. This is now being expressed, and to an extent confused, with left- and right-wing politics, with nationalism and globalism, and with the European Union. Writing about this upheaval needs to happen. We need this turmoil to be documented, explored, and expressed beyond the establishment perspective. However, everybody thinks differently, and in this age of individualism, novelists must show how change impacts everybody.
Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, both from 2019, are recent attempts at expressing this modern condition. Winterson’s novel takes its inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and tells the story of transgender doctor Ry and their relationship with Victor Stein, who is going about Manchester trying to bring things back to life. This section, set in the modern day, with references galore to sexuality, Brexit, Boris, Trump, the lot, is actually the least topical, least interesting part of the novel.
It seems bogged down by the contemporary, and it never stops taking itself seriously. Consequently, every character seems flat and weird, so caught up in societal changes that we never understand how they are feeling amongst them. The attempts at character comedy rarely work, and come off a little cringe-inducing, especially the insults hurled at Ry by the ignorant sex-robot kingpin, Ron Lord.
The sections narrated from Mary Shelley’s point of view, however, have a beautiful ignorance of modern life, and the connections drawn from her thoughts and feelings to our political situation are all the more interesting for their ironic, ‘accidental’ nature. It is completely limited by her early 19th Century point-of-view, which liberates the text’s ideas.
The novel often feels like a rant when it divulges into politics, apart from Ry’s incredibly moving vignettes on transitioning and taking charge of their own body. But Shelley’s discussions about birth and maternity, about science, bodies and human worth tap into our current anxieties and transcend time. Movingly, Shelley muses:
Here I am, in my inadequate skin, goose-fleshed and shivering. A poor specimen of a creature, with no nose of a dog, and no speed of a horse, and no wings like the invisible buzzards whose cries I hear above me like lost souls, and no fins or even a mermaid’s tail for this wrung-out weather. I am not as well-found as that dormouse disappearing into a crack in the rock. I am a poor specimen of a creature, except that I can think.
Winterson skilfully discusses the inadequacies of the body, and a vague desire to control it, a theme that is picked up later on with Ry’s narrative. Ry’s sex scene with Victor is particularly great, as it discusses the beauty in their decisions surrounding their own body, when Victor ‘stroked my chest, pausing over the scars. […] To me they are beautiful. A mark of freedom. When I find them in the night, in the dark, I remember what I have done, and I go back to sleep.’
So, when Winterson gets it right, she gets it very right indeed. However, in the second half, what little plot or cohesion there was completely dissolves, and it could have done with ridding itself of Victor and his endless monologues about how he was going to change the world, to instead focus on Ry’s experience with science and modernity – a lifesaving one. Ry and Shelley were kindred spirits whose political, bodily concerns bridged the two-hundred-year gap between them. But when the novel ranted about the modern day, it all sounded like Winterson, not Ry. Projecting concerns through a character, it sounded interesting and effortlessly beautiful.
Bernardine Evaristo gets it right in Girl, Woman, Other however, and it’s no wonder she took the Booker for it (even if she did cruelly have to share it with Margaret Atwood’s overrated The Testaments). Unlike Winterson, who addresses modern concerns with unfiltered, inconsiderate ramblings, Evaristo never fully commits to wokeness or preaching. The modern trend of telling everyone how amazing and politically minded you are is gently and humanely laughed at here, the politics never going unchallenged, or unchanged.
In one memorable scene, Yazz, easily one of the novel’s best characters, is at university telling a friend how she is the most privileged because she is white, whereas everyone else in the room is disadvantaged. The girl, Courtney, retorts by saying that that is to an extent true, but aren’t you the daughter of a successful playwright? Isn’t she the daughter of ambassadors? And doesn’t she fly to America every other week? Privilege, or this particular concept of it, is flawed, yet Evaristo is careful not to portray Yazz as a fool. Evaristo goes somewhat against the grain, but through a funny and fully rounded character. Yazz is, like most people, well-intentioned and comes to understand nuance and complexity by the end of her section, but remains true to herself, and correctly diagnoses the actual problems of modern Britain more than most of the adults – particularly Dominique, who is a trans-exclusionary feminist.
All the characters in this novel, of whatever political persuasion, are granted the same level of sympathy by the narrator. Amma, Yazz’s mother, is another stellar example of how writing on politics can be done well. She, like everyone, hates the emerging, nationalistic status quo of Britain and America, and is conflicted about selling out her principles by putting her play on at The National Theatre instead of following her friend Sylvester’s example with his ‘97% Theatre Company’, that ‘1% of the general public has heard of’.
Amma wants success, but she also wants to go out to the masses and stay true to her lefty routes, especially in our elitist, conservative climate. But she never compromised on subject matter, and still wrote about what interested her, in this case African Amazonian lesbians, even if it will be performed in a seemingly elitist setting.
So, in a sense, an equilibrium is achieved, a sensible and humane compromise of principles and radicalism. She brings a new, fresh play to a perhaps stale location. This simple conflict is evidential of every character in the book, in that none of them ever reach the state of ideological purity that characters like Yazz aim for at the beginning. Their principles give way to experience and ambition, which is fine.
Also, whilst reading all of Girl, Woman, Other, I sensed all the way through that Evaristo was expressing something unique and underrepresented in literature, namely twelve mostly black, mostly women’s stories. Even Penelope, the racist old woman who nevertheless provokes awkward humour, much more skilfully done than Winterson’s cringey Ron Lord, is forced to change her mind, even if her atrocious manners remain intact. She is not let off the hook, but laughed at in a way that reminded me of Jane Austen’s narration – you immediately know exactly what the narrator thinks of her, without her needing to outwardly say, ‘God, isn’t she awful?’
The ambiguity of the title sums up the novel well. It reads almost like a census question, inviting us to try and find a definition that could possibly encompass all the identities in the novel, which speaks to this broadness of Evaristo’s text. She is writing against categorisation from the outside, and in letting us breathe with the characters and see them as they are, she achieves this beautifully. Winterson captures this in moments, but is ultimately too concerned with her own point of view and (however understandable) frustration at modern politics to ever convey that through characters. Instead, it often feels forced and inhuman.
Winterson, I imagine, finished writing Frankissstein with a feeling of that purity and that cohesion being reached. Rather like Yazz at the start of Girl, Woman, Other, she had it all thought out. But in its rigidity, it not only felt inhuman, but so performative it became unreadable. Evaristo, whilst not commenting on politics directly with her authorial voice, but through her complicated and flawed characters, manages to do something more interesting, presenting a more complete and humane work. Aspiring to a flawless politics is to be encouraged, but in everyday life that simplicity is not as possible, as nobody ever fully lives up to your expectations.