Updated on May 19, 2015
27. ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston
This gorgeous book came from my recent trip to Hay-on-Wye. I wandered into the stunning, wood-panelled Richard Booth’s and worked my way up the creaking stairs to the general fiction department.
Their Eyes caught my attention straight away, thanks to its beautifully floral hardback cover which is part of Virago’s Modern Classics range. The book’s description also sold it to me – I’d just seen Toni Morrison give her talk and Zora Neale Hurston was apparently a huge influence on not only Morrison, but also Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and, more recently, Zadie Smith.
According to the blurb, “she is now recognised as one of the most influential African-American writers of the twentieth century.”
All of that makes for quite a build up, but Their Eyes more than lives up to it. In many ways it reminds me of Morrison’s Sula, which I read earlier this year – the central character is a young black woman who resists everybody else’s expectations of her and carves out her own path instead.
Essentially, this book is a love story. It follows Janie, a girl living in late-19th century America, who is married off into a secure lifestyle by her ailing grandmother. But married life isn’t at all what Janie expected – she doesn’t fall in love with her husband, and he forgets his promises to keep her in a life of ease. Janie wants adventure and romance and sex, so she runs away.
The entire book is narrated through the framing device of Janie telling her own story to a friend, so there is a lot of colloquial speech and written dialect. That might sound off-putting, but once you get into the rhythm it becomes quite easy to understand. In fact, the mixture of the characters’ dialect and Hurston’s poetic descriptions make this book like nothing I’ve read before: the prose is rich and deep and often unbelievably beautiful.
Just take Janie’s description of love as an example: “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
Their Eyes is really a book about finding yourself (and in this case it’s not a cliché, because Hurston was writing before the clichés) and finding yourself through loving another. That’s not anti-feminist. In fact, it’s the opposite. Janie is a woman who defines herself through the man she loves, but she retains the ultimate freedom: she chooses who that man will be.
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?