Hazel McHaffie

Super Thursday

Girl, Woman, Other

Did you know that last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday‘? – that day in the literary calendar when there’s a bonanza release of new books in time for Christmas. And this year, because of Covid-19 significantly delaying publication for authors across the board, as many as 600 new titles were released in 24 hours. 600! In one day!! SIX HUNDRED!! What hope is there for mid-or-below-mid-listers to be even noticed, huh? About as much as for a youngster with three C-grades-on-the-basis-of-teacher-assessment getting into Oxbridge, I’d say.

Seemed like a good week to home in on one title that has made the grade, big time: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which I mentioned in my post two weeks ago – co-winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Attwood‘s The Testaments. Evaristo is the first black woman ever to achieve this distinction, and she comes across at interview as a bundle of energy and zeal and determination. Positively effervescing! Given the high profile racial issues have been receiving of late, it could be argued that this book – its subject matter and its author – must surely be falling into fertile soil.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction, which took her six years to complete. It’s written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, without capital letters or full stops for sentences, or proper paragraphs, line breaks being used to control rhythm and beat. Sound confusing? I know, and yet … it’s very readable (says this Booker Philistine with wonder in her voice). Here’s a wee peek inside …

The novel follows twelve characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades, from different backgrounds, having different experiences, making different choices. Each character has her own chapter, but their lives overlap and they are all interconnected in some way. Some of them are close – friends, relatives, lovers – others simply visit the same theatre on the same night. But common threads pervade their stories: oppression, prejudice, discrimination, racism, injustice, sisterhood. Which come in all shapes and sizes. Typically of literary books, there’s no real plot, but the characters challenge the reader to consider British attitudes and practices towards black women through the ages, and more importantly, one’s own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

The primary character and lynch-pin is probably Amma, a black lesbian playwright, now in her 50s, whose new play is being produced at the National Theatre in London. Her vignette starts the book; her after-play party almost concludes it. This part of the story is semi-autobiographical: Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. In between, we meet eleven other characters who range through frustrated teacher, abused partner, sassy teenager, nonagenarian farmer, non-binary person, adopted waif, and so much more besides.

Did it work for me? On one level, yes. I found the unusual writing style surprisingly fit for purpose. The characters come alive through their patois/pidgin, their disjointed paragraphs, their learned experiences over time. I especially enjoyed Carole, a Nigerian girl who rises above her circumstances – poverty, gang rape at 13, schooling in an establishment that specialises in producing teenage mothers and early career criminals – to acquire a degree at Oxford amongst future prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, and goes on to set the world of finance alight. And yet still finds herself overlooked and suspected. Then there’s her indomitable mother Bummi, determined to make a success of life against the odds, setting up her own very professional and superior cleaning services company, gradually accepting her daughter’s steps away from her African heritage, but herself accepted by the young English high society man Carole marries. I couldn’t help but take to the sassy teenage LaTisha, the queen of backchat, spouting her unique brand of philosophical wisdom and researched facts, all the while emoting pure insolence – a special skill of hers according to her teachers. And I really took to Hattie, 93 years old, a great great grandmother, still living alone and running the family’s 800 acre farm, outspoken about modern hifalutin ideas like mobile phones and non binary identity and central heating.

But for me, their brief biographies lacked a certain overall depth, and I’d have liked more development of their individual and collective stories. That in itself is a remarkable reflection. Booker Prize winners usually leave me shrugging my shoulders and saying, So what? This one left me wanting more. I’d call that a success.














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Super Thursday

Have you heard of Super Thursday? Nor me. A least I hadn’t until this week.

This year Super Thursday fell on September 29th. And on that day a raft of books were launched onto a unsuspecting public, books that the publishers (and authors) hope will become Christmas bestsellers. Titles by folk like Robert Harris, Joanna Lumley, Alan Sugar, Lee Child. Hmm. Three months early. But apparently these contenders need to build up a head of steam, and be seen in bookshops, on coffee tables, on trains and planes, etc. ‘Seep into the public consciousness.’ Seep, not zoom, because if they fly off the shelves too quickly the book’s in danger of dying prematurely. Riiight.

Anyway on Super Thursday this year, more than 225 books were published. And more big names are on the way in the next few weeks, to stagger the impact. Again a fair smattering of famous faces from the small screen rather than literary giants.  Jeremy Paxman, Rob Brydon alongside Claire Tomalin. You can find the whole list at the link above. What does that say about people and Christmas, eh? Hey ho.

No prizes for guessing that my new novel is not among them. But then McHaffie is not a household name – in case it had slipped your busy notice. I do not appear in quiz games or political rallies. I do not grace the front pages of the glossies or make a double page splurge in Saga magazine. Yet.

However, Saving Sebastian is scheduled for January, when I hope lots of people have Christmas-gift vouchers and money to splurge out on lesser known authors. Hey, come on! A girl can dream, can’t she?

But I’m not just dreaming. I’m actually being diligently proactive at the moment. What am I up to? I’m converting my back-list into ebooks. Yep, really, truly, I am. And having a lot of pleasure in the process. It feels good. At last I’m taking back some kind of control over my novels. But I’m anxious to get them right – I hate muddled formatting and missing capitals and all the other errors that creep in when conversion isn’t done efficiently. So there’s a lot of browsing through how-to texts and consulting experts and editing and generally pfaffing about going on. It’s almost as compulsive as writing the books in the first place.

I’ll keep you posted.


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