“…she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see…”
Some novels give you interesting ideas to think about. Some create an entertaining stories. Some do an interesting mixture of both of these things. A rare kind of book, however, can transport you into a time, place, and body that are far away from anything you would normally experience, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtston achieves this with ease and grace.
Hurston creates the humid, vibrant landscapes of South Florida through a dramatic third-person prose style that borders on mythical, but it’s dialogue – phonetic, funny, and raw – that lets her truly shine. Crafting insightful, funny conversations that still propel narrative almost looks easy when she does it. Almost.
The characters are flawed, even the most lovable: the protagonist can seem self-centered; Tea-Cake is affectionate and funny, but his temper and gambling can make him almost dangerous; her other love interests are cruel, but understandable. That’s why it’s possible to really believe and care about them (“loving” characters can be a trite phrase used to describe mere affection, but in this case it’s appropriate), and one of the reasons why I almost didn’t want the book to end.
I was turned onto this book by an essay by Zadie Smith, who once again is scarily perceptive. Her thoughts as to why the love of Tea-Cake and Janie rings so true despite the deluge of poor romance in a lot of otherwise strong fiction, for example:
“[T]he choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame[.]”
Put simply, what makes this novel truly special is that Hurtston’s characters feel as organic in the way they interact and clash. This is a love story with conflict and heartbreak, but completely devoid of cliche and over-sentimentality. That’s something rare and fantastic.