Plot: Two sisters, raised in an abusive household, are separated by the men in their lives but they remain loyal to each other for decades through pain, loss and love, in spite of insurmountable distances and overwhelming odds.
This is a novel that I have been meaning to read for a long time but that I was simultaneously wary of reading. I had read a sample chapter and was left deeply troubled by the frank discussion of abuse, incest and rape. I’m glad I worked past my reluctance, however, because this is an amazing book, truly deserving its Pulitzer Prize. Don’t get me wrong, this novel is hard, triggery and often unhappy. But Celie and Nettie’s voices are so authentic, their struggles, so engaging that I could not put the novel down.
This is a novel written in letters. Most of the letters are written by the elder sister, Celie. Celie writes as she speaks, something which I don’t like in fiction generally, but Walker handles it so well that far from getting in the way of the narrative, it enhances it. It truly feels like Celie’s voice. She addresses her letters to God, at least at first, because she has no one else to write to. But as she comes to believe in her sister’s survival and see the beauty and divinity in the world around her, Nettie becomes her audience. There is so much going on in her narrative that it is hard to capture in a short review: abuse (verbal, physical and sexual), racism, family, marriage, prison, love and women finding their power. It is simply life, in all its complexity, for black women in the southern United States.
Nettie’s letters come later in the novel and deal with her mission to Africa, with the destruction of a tribe and a way of life in the name of economics and progress. There are some disturbing aspects to this mission: the missionaries look upon the Olinka and their traditions as primitive and they are hurt that they are not viewed much differently than the white missionaries. But one cannot ignore the truth that sometimes that even the well-intentioned can do or say troubling things. And Nettie’s narrative has its own ups and downs. It is as emotional and engaging as her sister’s.
Emotional, engaging, thought-provoking, spiritual… this is quite simply a beautiful, if difficult novel. One to read again and again.