Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I picked up Their Eyes Were Watching God in the library because the title intrigued me and read the first two paragraphs:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.*

I thought this so beautiful I borrowed the book and read it straight away, and this really is a wonderful novel. It was published in 1937 and is now a recognised classic but passed me by until now.

The story is quite simple and tells the life of Janie Crawford, a mixed race woman who believes she deserves love and holds onto that belief in the face of the resignation to compromise and suffering that surrounds her. Janie comes vividly to life thanks to Hurston’s style. Much of the book is direct speech between characters framed by narration in the literary, even biblical tone that opens the book. The play between the two styles – idiomatic direct speech and poetic narration – reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy since I read The Crossing so recently, except that Hurston is warmer and her characters’ free-wheeling conversations take over more.

I could pull quotes out of anywhere in Their Eyes and marvel at what Hurston does. Here’s one example, Janie remembering her grandmother:

It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud puddle and see and ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon – for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you – and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.

Reading Janie recover from this is a joy.

(* Given the last post I'd better acknowledge this opening is in the present tense. It's in the honoured tradition of getting going with something gnomic (Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace...), but the novel isn't in the present throughout...)

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