Their eyes were watching God | Zora Neale Hurston

At the moment I want stories about courage, resilience, independence, and big journeys, and the novels by black women authors I’m reading are so about that. Their eyes were watching God was no exception. What a rich, immense read. There was so much I loved about this book, but just to note three things that really stood out for me.

Firstly, the seriously cool central character, Janie. Tall, striking, proud and spirited, she gets through three husbands in the space of a fairly short book. Dour farmer husband no.1 wants a skivvy, so she doesn’t put up with him for long. Ambitious entrepreneur husband no.2 wants a trophy wife; fortunately he leaves her wealthy young widow. Fun-loving young itinerant husband no.3 just wants good times, and so does Janie, she realises, so throwing respectability to the wind, they drift around Florida, and she finally gets to have a mis-spent youth in her 40s. I liked that a lot.

Secondly, the narrative is framed by Janie’s friendship with Phoeby. Good female friendships in novels are a joy and a rarity. The story starts with her returning to her home town after her adventures with husband no.3, and she seeks out her best friend as soon as she arrives. The way she talks with Phoeby is completely different from the usual aloofness / performative banter that she deploys to maintain her social image; it’s warm, affectionate and humorous, and although Phoeby is very much an audience for the purposes of the narrative, their dialogue portrays a solid, trusting relationship that’s a constant in Janie’s life though men may come and go (and they do). I liked that a lot too.      

Which brings us on to language. Zora Neale Hurston’s use of language in this book is just stunning. There are two voices, the vernacular of the large cast of characters that peoples Janie’s journey – her grandma, husbands, neighbours, townsfolk and numerous others – and the gorgeous poetic narrative voice. The contrast is striking but never jarring. ZNH is a genius at creating characters through speech: she instantly sketches a personality with nothing but a few lines of dialogue, which is an amazing talent; no physical description or background or details, she just puts some words in their mouths and zap, you have the measure of them straight away. And as for the narration – full of wonderful imagery, insight and truth; profound, incisive, and just perfectly done. I absolutely loved that.   

As a young biracial woman born into a society that offered limited life-chances on the basis of her sex and race (see also Quicksand), Janie sets out to do what she can with what she has, to take risks, and rattle the doors of the cage. The narrative presents Janie and her situations close up and from a distance, but with no moral or message – it’s just here are the choices she made and here are the consequences; she has some good fortune and joy, and some bad luck and tragedy, and such is life. Janie emerges bloodied but unbowed, with no regrets. And I really loved her for that.