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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.

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This book lived up to the words the author puts in Trotsky’s mouth about novels, ‘Where does any man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison?’ Following the life of Harrison Shepherd: swimmer, cook, secretary, novelist, as he becomes caught up in events larger than him. Moving into adulthood an indelible mark is placed on him as he works in the house of the painters Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, and then that of the exiled Russian communist Trotsky, in Mexico before fleeing to the States; as both countries forge their modern characters. The novel captures the issues of identity, belonging, and the dangers of illiberalism.  

The lacuna – an underwater tunnel leading to an isolated inland spot where Shepard can escape his childhood burdens for a while – also stands for the gap, the blankness, at the centre of characters’ understanding of each other. A repeated motif  ‘the most important part of the story is the piece of it you don’t know’ runs through the novel.  

And so much isn’t known by Harrison about others – ‘a wife and child’, illnesses, death, the depth and shallowness of attachments. But more isn’t known about him by others – his sexuality, his love, his striving to belong, his trust in hope, all, perhaps, eventually betrayed.

This is a breathtaking novel. Describing in poetic prose the attempts of a man to survive with his identity and dignity intact in the face of all that life can throw at him, and teaching that there is always a lacuna where that can be achieved.