Sunday, 6 July 2014

Their Eyes Were Watching God

As I have mentioned before, I am an avid reader of the Black White & Read Book blog, and was inspired by one of her posts to delve into one of the most widely read African American classics:

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There will be some non-kindle covers soon I promise!


Zora Neale Hurston


African-American literature

One-sentence summary:

Janie tells her friend Phoeby the story of her loves and losses, her trials and her patient (and not-so-patient) perseverences, giving insight into her discovery of love and her experiences as a black woman in the deep south.


I'm still reeling from trying to pull myself too quickly out of this book into the real world, so I don't know how good this review will be.. But here goes anyway.

I loved this book! I found it profound and sad, and deep and mesmerising until I was swallowed up by the world and the people in it. The writing is just beautiful, and some of the imagery is so vivid, creating an abstract sensation or feeling or atmosphere without always describing things in a concrete way, which nonetheless makes you feel like you are right there experiencing it all too. The characters' speech is all written phonetically to emphasize their strong accents, which did slow down the pace for me a little as I had to sort of sound it out in my head. This can be profoundly irritating and even a deal-breaker for a book if it's not done well, but in this instance it's exactly right. It just conveys the characters' voices so beautifully and I don't think it would be right any other way.

The characters... What to say? Actually, much as I loved Janie and completely rooted for her, I felt like I didn't really get to know her until the second half of the book. Though it occurs to me now that maybe that was deliberate, since she doesn't really find herself either until she meets Tea Cake. In the first half, I had more of a sense of the character of the community as a whole rather than Janie's.

But she really seems to come to life in the second half. Though she often has no choice in what happens to her, she never loses control of her own mind, no matter how much it takes a beating. Her character really stood out in comparison to the stereotypical 'strong woman' character, who is in charge of her life and can do anything she wants. Janie is much more nuanced. She doesn't always speak her mind. She doesn't really defend herself when people put her down (both mentally and physically). She often depends on men for things. Yet she owns her decisions and knows her own mind. Her strength is often through enduring rather than fighting, which I think is definitely a much downplayed quality in literary protagonists. What stood out the most about her for me was that she didn't seem to be a representative of anything. She was just a person; flawed and not always rational, but real.

The story was quite slow-moving, and was much more focussed on developing the atmosphere of the community and showing their interactions rather than concentrating on specific events. This really worked for me in this book. I found myself immersed, so I knew exactly how the characters' world worked. And, as you may have already gathered, I found it pretty hard to tear myself away from it.

Final thoughts:

This book really got under my skin. I just felt so immersed in the story's world that it was hard to drag myself out. Although it's fiction, I feel like this book presents a slice of history, not the history that we often hear about, but real-people history, with people's individual stories and lives. When reading this book, I could feel it's importance, that it was shining a light on something that is often overlooked. That was especially true for me because I have never even scratched the surface of African American literature (partly because I'm British and don't read all that much American literature anyway). As you can probably tell, I highly recommend this book, not just because of it's importance but also it's worth as a piece of writing.

I'm going to give it:

What did you think of Their Eyes Were Watching God? Did you agree with my review? What other African American books or authors would you recommend?

Bonus: Check out this review of the book by Ashley at climbthestacks for a lot more information about the context of the book and other movements in African American literature, as well as a thoughtful review. I've put the link to her video on youtube instead of embedding it here to encourage you to go on over there and join the discussion/show her some love.

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