The world’s most prestigious literary prize was declared a draw between Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood's novels. Reviewer Catherine Robertson disagrees.
Even if you agree that Atwood is a writer of historic significance and Evaristo has been shamefully underrated, the real question is: are the novels of equal merit? Short answer: no.
Girl, Woman, Other is an ambitious delight of a book. Anglo-Nigerian Evaristo gives us the lives of 12 characters, almost all women, all connected to a black heritage but not of one mind about how it shapes their identity. She connects all the characters in sometimes surprising ways, and with such compassion and wit that you forgive all their flaws.
Evaristo covers a vast amount of tricky social ground with immense skill, lightening the didactic parts with humour. Perhaps she treads a little too lightly, as this is a comforting read when racism and issues of gender continue to threaten lives. Those averse to experimental novels needn’t worry about the poetry-style lack of capitals and full stops – it enhances the readability. This is a novel of the times, but it is also a beautiful, clever and enduring work.
The Testaments is unarguably a novel of the times. The anticipation for this sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale was amplified enormously by the television series, its success in turn fuelled by the behaviour of certain men in power and the emergence of newly oppressive social regimes.
It’s 15 years since the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, and we are back in Gilead with two of our narrators, ruthless survivor Aunt Lydia and Wife-in-grooming Agnes. Outside, safe in Canada, is third narrator Daisy, but now that she’s of age to know who she really is, she may soon have no choice but to return.
The Handmaid’s Tale is rightfully a literary classic. This book disappoints. Atwood’s wit and intelligence are not enough to elevate what feels like a flimsy, rushed piece of work. Action is prioritised over emotional depth; Daisy, especially, lacks substance. The structure, tight at the start, soon begins to fracture and the ending is a complete fizzer.
It’s a shame that Atwood’s legendary skill isn’t showcased in the one novel most people will read. And no prizes for guessing which book should have been this year’s sole Booker winner.
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton, $40); THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $48).
This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.