Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Details: (c) 1937; Pub Virago (missing details because I had to pass the book on to the next person who wanted to read it)
Verdict: Their eyes were watching God is a fine tragic novel.
Reasons for reading it: It's a classic and one of those things everybody ought to read. Plus I've recently been reading Alice Walker who is a huge fan of it.
How it came into my hands: The person who was hosting the midsummer party and passing out books was really enthusiastic to lend out her copy. I read it first because I read fast, and could then hand it on to the next person so that it can get back to its owner soon.
It's easy to see why Their eyes were watching God is such a classic. It's beautifully written, and keeps firmly on the right side of tragic rather than depressing or sentimental, even though a plot summary would be pretty down-beat. The section describing the hurricane and the racist attitudes which lead to further unnecessary suffering is particularly poignant in the light of the Katrina tragedy recently.
The language is beautiful, switching between phonetically transcribed Black dialect which really conveys character, and an extremely lyrical narrative voice. The construction is as tight as anything, and it also works as a story with engaging and sympathetic characters.
I do seem to be reading a lot of stories about black people in pre-Civil Rights America at the moment. I suppose if I had a run of reading stories about contemporary white English people, I wouldn't comment on it. Anyway, I had to read this so as not to hold up the queue, and I don't regret it even if it comes close to other books treating similar subjects.
Other than the extremely high quality of the language, what makes TEWWG work is that all the characters are three-dimensional. Janie is a magnificent heroine, memorable and likeable but far from perfect. Similarly for the minor characters; some of them do horrible things, some of them do nice things, but they're all real people. Fairly obviously it's a book about racism and sexism, but it's also about people and their relationships.