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I would have liked to like this book, after all it did win the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year, but I’m afraid it didn’t really do it for me. I guess that’s it – it’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t love it. The prose was magnificent, verging on poetic, but it just left me feeling slightly bewildered and not particularly moved.

The book starts with George, bedridden and surrounded by relatives and the antique clocks he loves and repairs, in the house he build, dying of cancer. And he starts to hallucinate – the house comes tumbling down around him, until the sky itself is sucked down upon him. It’s one of the most gripping and imaginative openings to a novel I’ve ever read, but it offers no real clue to the purpose of the book, and that sets the tone of the rest of this slim volume.

Interspersed with George’s dying moments is the story of his father (although whether George is remembering or whether this is just a separate thread spun through the tale isn’t clear). George’s father, Howard, is a tinker, making his living from the selling of bits and bobs to the people who live in their homesteads in the woods. Howard is close to nature and an epileptic, a curse that sends him fleeing from his family, and a blessing in what it then grants him.

These two stories are twined together, with fragments from a horologist’s book and passages on nature. Harding’s descriptive reach is breathtaking but at the end I couldn’t bring myself to feel for his characters. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, what their relations were to each other. George’s wife and his grandson seem more real and knowable than George and Howard themselves. Whilst I felt the rhythm and the power of the language, I came to feel the characters were a mere sideshow: and maybe that was the whole story – nature carries on in her power and beauty regardless and humans’ passing is marked by the regular ticking of the clocks.

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Fo some reason I’d never really fancied reading this book, so when I saw it was on my list for a course I did with the Open University I thought I’d just have to read it as part of the curriculum and get through it, but not really enjoy it. And how wrong I was, instead I fell hook, line and sinker for it, and found one of the most life affirming books I’ve ever read.

The novel is written in the epistolary form, mainly letters from Celie to God, although later it also contains letters from and to her sister Nettie. Celie is raped by her step-father (although at the time she thinks he is her father) as a child, bears him two children who are sold, and she is then bargained off as ‘spoilt goods’ to a violent and abusive man. She is then estranged from her sister, as her husband hides her letters from Celie.

But through all of this Celie survives, due to support, help and lessons from a series of women. She learns not to side with the abuser through Sofia when she talks about her husband and says, ‘…I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me’. Through her husband’s mistress, the glamorous Shug Avery, she learns sexual love, and when she discovers the hidden letters from her sister realises that she is loved. This, with Shug’s help, gives her the strength and ability to support herself, and to curse her husband, wearing who she is as a badge of pride, ‘I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook…But I’m here’.

The only off note in the novel is the Africa section. I understand the purpose, how Walker wants to celebrate African-American heritage and history, but through trying to encompass an entire continent in a few letters the end result seems to me strained and false. Also, there is the question of whether Walker has the necessary authority to speak on ‘Africa’s’ behalf.

But that aside I love this book. Yes, the characters are not necessarily ‘realistic’ but they speak of how through solidarity women can survive and flourish in spite of deprivation, abuse and misuse at the hands of men, and retain their ability to create and be a someone in spite of it all.