Friday, November 21, 2008

Reviewed: The Color Purple

I only expect to read a book like the The Color Purple once in my life.

It's not just skillful, detailed, deeply human, full of love: it's the perfect mix of all those things.

The beginning entices with its suggestion of horrors and character development to come, but everything after the first five chapters surprises. If the novel seems, at first, to be a depressing narrative about Southern racism, Alice Walker's real talent is to turn that much-told story inside out, to rediscover within it a message of power.

Her characters change more rapidly than the world around them, but Walker's world (and perhaps reality, goes the suggestion) is an elastic place, one that accommodates itself to people rather than the other way around. The story wanders through jails and jazz bars, mission schools and malaria epidemics - the myriad mysterious places where human drama has an opportunity to thrive. Some would say it's about a few relationships: the confident love between protagonist Celie and her lost younger sister, or the uncertain affection between Celie and the beautiful lounge singer Shug Avery, or the reciprocal doubt between Celie and God. This is why, those voices will say, Purple is a story about women. And they're half-right: the book is only about one person: Celie herself, and that's why it's a story about women.

Unlike many novels that confront social ills, Purple is neither funny nor subversive. It's an outspoken declaration of universal rights, a ripping-good story and a homily. It's that rare thing: a book created from ideology and literature that compromises neither.

Read if it you like: Maya Angelou, William Faulkner, Erica Jong
Skip it if you prefer: Borat

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