Friday, 2 October 2020

Ruby Reviews The Color Purple by Alice Walker


2020, a year of many facets, many colours, many seasons. Covid-19 lockdown caused a reading frenzy in our house – online ordering (even from the local bookshop), the excitement of packages arriving every few days, author series collections reaching completeness on the bookshelves, stacked double deep. With the writing of a couple of crime fiction novels in progress, I mostly concentrated on the Connollys (John and Michael of Bosch and Charlie Parker fame, or is it the other way round, I can never remember) and the Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. I started with the first and worked my way through, noticing the style changes as the author developed and found their stride (more about that another time).

Eventually the new title well ran dry, lockdown eased and the spending had to stop. So I turned to the bookshelves and considered novels I had read before. Something less plot-oriented. John Irving perhaps? Mrs R thrust The Color Purple into my hand. ‘Read this, it’s topical,’ she said. Well, I’m as liberal as the next nearly sixty-year-old white European, but I didn’t want my reading trend influenced by world events. I like being in my own little bubble. But purple, now purple is my favourite colour.

I put off the task and read The Water Method Man by John Irving. I couldn’t believe that book was nearly as old as Mrs R. Meanwhile, The Color Purple mysteriously migrated upstairs and onto my bedside table. It seemed it was mandatory. With trepidation, feelings of right-on with BLM and a medium to strong dislike of Whoopi Goldberg, I began to read. First written in 1983, this was the 2017 edition. It started with a letter by the author explaining how she had some issues with the 1985 film, how it failed to get across some of the characters and the story. “Thank the Goddess there is a book,” she said. I was liking Alice Walker already.

There are two things about the written style of The Color Purple that would generally put me off. The first is it’s written entirely in the form of letters by the narrator to God, to the narrator’s sister and occasional by the sister back to the narrator. This raises various point-of-view challenges and requires reported speech to avoid a monologue. The other key point is the narrative is written in a vernacular language aiming to replicate the black deep south in the early twentieth century. Normally, I find even a few passages of a character speaking in the vernacular to be tiresome and it’s not an easy feat for an author to pull off. For these two reasons I did hesitate with the first few chapters, but the main character Celie soon had my interest and I was there, fighting her corner against adversity.

This novel isn’t, in the main, about racism. There are occasions when the extreme early twentieth century prejudice against people of colour in the U.S.A. and the issue of white privilege arise, particular in the case of what happens to a particularly strong character named Sofia. What this book is about is the abuse of power by one individual over another and the sexual stereotypes from which people struggle to break free. Celie, the main character and most times narrator, suffers abuse in just about every way possible. Her father figure commits three atrocities in short order by fathering her children, giving those children away and then committing Celie to a loveless, forlorn marriage. This is no spoiler, as it’s already plain to read on the book’s back cover, but it sets the tone for what Celie must endure.

Celie isn’t the only character who has to deal with adversity. Almost everyone is touched by physical abuse, deprivation and infidelity. Most all both commit and are victims of these actions. Celie’s own assertion to her stepson that he should beat obedience into his new wife is a causal factor in the twisted track that Harpo’s and Sofia’s lives follow. Yet through it all, there is a tone of optimism. When someone decides they have had enough, they somehow find the strength and courage to walk away. This is mixed with a strange permissiveness in the society of these characters who accept that wives and husbands may come and go, and that a wife forced into a loveless marriage may in fact prefer a woman as bed companion. At no point does the intolerance of behaviour lead to a point of no return. How realistic this is I cannot say, but it does serve to avoid total tragedy.

The Color Purple takes the reader through the seasons of life in a society that differs enormously to today. It commences perhaps a hundred years ago and the refreshing lack of modernity allows the reader to focus on the characters. Alice Walker fully fleshes out each actor and they are as real to me as if it were a filmed documentary. The book is full of love – unrequited, realised, denied, surprising, enduring, everyone gets a dose at some point. I saw each person suffer their trials of life and emerge a sometimes very changed person. At no point did this challenge belief and that’s a testament to Walker’s skill as a writer. The two points I mentioned above, about the use of letters for narrative and vernacular language, are very skilfully executed. I have no idea of the authenticity of the language but rarely did I have any problem understanding what the characters wrote or said. It feels very real, just like the way a person without good education will write a letter, using the same slang and mispronunciation as their spoken words. The point-of-view, timeline and tenses, and monologue challenges of communicating an entire novel by letters were all handled masterfully. Only now, writing this review, do I understand just what a great novel this is, and I’m so glad to have read it again.

2nd October 2020