Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of those books that when I encountered it in my adolescence, I was floored by its beauty. But my compliments had an accompanying jealousy – that I did not, could not, create it myself. Zora Neale Hurston's portrayal of Janie, the young girl dispatched to what her grandmother believes is a better life, is so compelling, and Janie's voice so clear, that it feels less like reading a book and more like being read to.
Janie's first two marriages are constraining fits, yet she remains unbroken despite several disappointments and we watch her grow and learn with empathy. Outside of the extraordinarily evocative dialogue, Hurston's language is a master-class in poetry: whether it’s Nanny calling herself 'a cracked plate', or the description of Joe Starks as 'uh whirlwind among breezes', Hurston’s vivid imagery is a joy to encounter.
I have reread Their Eyes Were Watching God over the years and its omni-sensory hijacking wipes any previous memory of it, and each time I come to it anew. Yet there can be no doubt that this book affected me greatly as a writer. I see Tea Cake in my own novel's character Babylon; his humour, his embrace of life and his complete acceptance of the woman he loves. We’re happy for Janie’s final relationship choice – unorthodox or not – because, at last, she feels happiness for herself.
More than a love story, Zora Neale Hurston creates a poignant work that even with its strong, black, rural setting transcends colour; that reaches into your soul to tug on the human spirit and defy you not to be moved.
The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic.
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