My friend, A, used to devour books by Maeve Binchy. I’m not really an easy reading kind of a girl, as you might have gathered from reading this blog, but I also refuse to turn into a book snob so when A insisted I read Binchy’s Evening Class, I agreed to borrow her dog-eared copy.
Evening Class (as it says on the tin) is about a night school class or, more accurately, a night school class is the unifying premise of the novel. Each chapter, or group of chapters, provides a glimpse into the life of one of the people attending the Italian class, and the final chapter pulls them and their stories together with a class outing to Italy. It’s a simple structure, yet extremely effective.
Binchy is, I think, underrated – by literary critics, that is, not by her many readers, nor consequently by the book industry: in 1999 she won Lifetime Achievement at the British Book Awards, which are gongs administered by The Bookseller magazine.
Barnadine Evaristo, on the other hand, won arguably THE most prestigious literary award in 2019, the Booker Prize, for Girl, Woman, Other (or rather, she was joint winner with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments). Shh…don’t tell the literature police, but Girl, Woman, Other has the same structure as Evening Class, a series of slice of stories pulled together in the final chapter, albeit the unifying event in GWO is rather more middle-class and literary: an after-show party for the opening night of a play at the National Theatre in London.
I’ll confess, I was steeling myself not to like GWO. It might have been the falling-over-itself-to-be-PC dedication (“For the sisters & the sistas, and the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn…” and so on, all the way down to “LGBTQI+ members of the human family”; or the contents page listing “The After-party” (darling). There was also the possibly-gimmicky-and-self-indulgent absence of capitalisation (apart from for real names) and full-stops, and line breaks more akin to poetry than prose. But then I started reading…
The After-party and Epilogue aside, there are four chapters split into three sections, each one narrated by a different person, so 12 sections/voices in all, “mostly women, mostly black” as it says on the blurb.
For example, there’s Dominique, a kick-ass lesbian actress, finds herself drawn into an abusive relationship with an Afro-American woman; Hattie “aged ninety–three and counting”, notwithstanding her African heritage, has a soul that belongs in a Yorkshire farmhouse; Shirley, a teacher and the “Family Success Story” who feels pressure to be “an/ambassador/for every black person in the world”; Megan/Morgan, who “felt different from childhood” and educates people about non-binary issues.
At first it was more like reading a series of short stories than a novel, but then the stories began to echo and overlap – in fact, trying to spot the connections became part of the joy of reading (although I did find myself making notes on the contents page to keep track of the protagonists and their relationship to each other).
Let’s just say that by the time I reached the Epilogue I was so engaged that I didn’t even baulk at the ending: “this is not about feeling something or speaking words/this is about being/together”.
Rating: ** Worth reading