Twelve protagonists? Why not?

Recently an author-friend of mine said a novel she’d written had been refused by a publisher because there were four central protagonists, which they said was three too many. There is a template in romantic comedy that requires one heroine, someone with a problem that needs to be solved, one handsome male who might do something to resolve it, and other interesting or quirky subsidiary characters that help to make up a full and well-rounded story. I suggested to my friend that, although we have much more chance of success if we stick to the rules, they are there to be broken. 

When I wrote Five French Hens, I was aware that readers would have five characters to get to know at the beginning of the book, rather than the standard one or two, and I introduced them carefully so that differentiation wouldn’t be too problematic for most people.

I do have sympathy with readers struggling to assimilate a large number of characters. It happens all the time in books and in films. I adored The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but I had a hard time telling who was who among the townsfolk at the beginning of the novel. After a bit of perseverance, it all became clear. It was the same with the TV series Peaky Blinders: there were only so many men with variations on short-back-and-sides appearing on the screen before I had to ask, is he the brother or the son? But it doesn’t detract from what is a cracking series.

Lots of novels have multiple main protagonists, from Little Women to The Famous Five, and confusion is usually avoided because the characters look and behave differently (one could even be a dog?). They are often introduced separately or they interact together in smaller numbers at different times, which helps.

So when I started to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, I was intrigued by how she would introduce a cast of some twelve women without confusing her readers. The answer is, she does it very well, with a great deal of skill and panache.

The novel probably isn’t for everyone: I read reviews of it and some people were confused by the large cast of women. Others thought the scarcity of punctuation was difficult but I found it really easy to assimilate: after the first two pages, I didn’t need it and I didn’t look for it. In fact, the absence of full stops and capitals adds something to the style and the rhythm of the novel.

Initially, I wasn’t hooked; the character of Amma and her daughter Yazz were interesting enough but there were lots of peripheral characters to take on board and a lot of ‘telling’ about their pasts. For the first two chapters¸ I wasn’t engaged with the protagonists, although they were characters I felt some sympathy for, but there wasn’t much to distinguish them from lots of other people in the world and make them stand out for their own qualities.

But Evaristo’s master stroke is how she mingles the characters with each other throughout the novel, introducing one at an early stage as a subsidiary character and then putting her on the spotlight later to fill in gaps and then she develops each one as a flawed but fascinating individual. Suddenly, the novel clicked for me and became absorbing; the ‘telling’ of backstories became central to understanding the character and how she relates to others.

Characters such as Carole, LaTisha, Shirley, Penelope, Bummi, Winsome, Megan/ Morgan and Hattie are cleverly interwoven, each other’s mothers, daughters, friends, grandparent, so that by the time each one has her own chapter, we know her from a different context already and so her story comes into sharp focus, important and relevant not just to the other characters but to what she contributes to the world as it is now. Bernadine Evaristo shows that attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and culture have changed over many generations and are still changing. She makes it clear that change is ongoing and her observation of these changes and developments in women’s lives is pin-sharp.

It is an important novel on many different levels. Firstly, it reveals something about women’s lives, how experiences of the world have improved over time and how women are perceived now in a fairer and more equitable way: things are changing; they needed to change; the change is not yet complete; things are not perfect yet for these women but they have, over time, achieved a little more in the way of independence and they have been assigned some measure of higher status; at times they have been listened to and their needs have been addressed. Change is good, but there is still a long way to go; there are still difficulties that need sorting out.

It is an important novel because it tells us about the world as it is now for each of its contrasting protagonists and their story is told freshly, honestly and with style. Furthermore, a novel with multiple protagonists tells the story of many women who, for their own different reasons, deserve to be listened to. It’s not just a simple story of one women whose problems will be easily resolved by a new partner and, while that can in itself be a very valid story, Evaristo’s insistence on defying heteronormative expectations and telling the stories of a dozen strong and exceptional women defiantly living their own lives is to be applauded, celebrated and read. 

She’s come a long way from Mr Loverman (which I adore) and produced a winner of a novel which is remarkable and ground breaking. Evaristo proves that when it comes to protagonists, less isn’t necessarily more.

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