…from the old blog… this was one of my favourite books from last year.
This is probably a shameful confession, but before Saturday morning I had never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, or her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. On top of that, if it hadn’t been lined up with the other beautiful VMC 30 editions with the stunning jackets, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance. However, as I was mooching around Waterstone’s, I spied those pretty, pretty covers and made a beeline over to them. All of them looked so delicious. Upon picking them up and reading a bit about each title, I found myself caught in a dilemma. Which to buy? In the end, I plumped for two: this one, and The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. The clincher for me when it came to the Hurston was that it was introduced by Zadie Smith. I adore Zadie Smith. I even named my cat after her. So, home with me the novel came.
What was meant to be a cursory flick through ended up being a proper session of being entirely bewitched by Hurston’s incredible prose. The story is roughly this: Janie Crawford is raised by her Nanny, an ex-slave, who wants her to have the advantages and easy life that she was denied. When Nanny spies Janie sharing a kiss with a local boy aged 16, she decides that Janie is officially a woman, and can be married off to a much older man who has sixty acres of land. After a year or so with him, Janie runs away with Joe Starks to Eatonville, a newly built town in West Florida full of black folk. Joe rises to become Mayor of the town, and Janie is bestowed the title of Mayor’s Wife. She is stifled in a marriage that denies her her very womanhood:
‘Dat’s right, but Ah’m uh man even if Ah is de Mayor. But de mayor’s wife is somethin’ different again.’
Joe puts her to work in the store he’s built in the town, where all the local folk meet out front to talk, laugh, and play checkers. She loves to listen to these big stories, these ‘thought pictures’, but Joe tells her it’s unbecoming for her to join in, and is banished back inside the shop. One of the most charged moments for me is when Joe buys a mistreated mule from a neighbour so as to set it free from its life of hard labour. He is revered in the town as the man who made a ‘free mule’. Meanwhile Janie is metaphorically tied up – her hair literally tied up (more of that later) and is there to do as she is told by Joe. As Nanny had said to Janie many years before, the black woman is ‘de mule uh de world’.
After 20 years of this claustrophobic marriage, Joe dies, and Janie eventually meets a young man they call Tea Cake. Tea Cake turns out to be the love of her life, despite the fact that their society deems them unsuitable for each other. He is a 25 year old who loves to gamble and to play guitar. She is nearly 40, a widow, and a wealthy one at that.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is really an incredible novel. While at a basic level the book is about a woman searching for love and acceptance, it is also about a woman discovering who she is within herself. She spends so many years trying to fit into the mould of what first her Nanny and then her husbands believe that she should be, that her sense of self appears to be smothered and lost in amongst it all.
The embodiment of herself and her womanhood is in her hair. From the very opening pages of the novel we are told that Janie is a beautiful woman with a ‘great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unravelling in the wind like a plume’. At every stage of her life, we find another description of her hair. When Joe banishes her to the store and she is in the most stifling years of her marriage, we find her hair tied up with rags, disguising its length and its beauty. The day that Joe dies, before Janie goes outside to break the news, she almost ceremonially let down her hair from their rags, and never puts it back up. The night Tea Cake confesses his love for her, he spends hours gently combing his fingers through her hair, a symbol of the gentleness with which he will treat her. In her hair is contained herself and her glorious womanhood.
One of the most beguiling things about this book is Hurston’s writing. Slightly surreal descriptions and aphorisms mix in with the West Florida black dialect with ease and it takes real talent to do that so seamlessly. This book also influenced some of the biggest names in African American women’s writing: Toni Morrison and Alice Walker both have glowing quotes in the front of the book. It’s sad, then, that it seems that Hurston’s acclaim came posthumously – in the 1950s she was working as a maid in a Florida hotel. So, well done Virago for making Their Eyes Were Watching God one of their limited edition range. I only hope that this magnificent novel finds a new audience because of it.