Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes

Author: Zora Neale Hurston

Finished on: 19 April 2015

Where did I get this book: Blackwell’s, Mappin Street, Sheffield, in 1999

I have read a couple of books recently that were ok. So I selected this one from the hundreds of possibilities on my shelves, because I knew that it is great.

This is a book I studied at university, which means I first read it around fifteen years ago. It has been waiting for a reread all that time.

There are many books on my shelves that I bought at university, and never read (contributing to the reason for the self-imposed book buying ban, and indeed this blog). I was not the most conscientious student, and while I always loved the reading involved with my English Literature degree, I wasn’t going to let it interfere with the important business of going to the pub, and watching Friends with my housemates in our pyjamas. It was a great time, I wouldn’t change it. But I would do it very differently if I were to study for a degree in a subject that means so much to me now. Wouldn’t it be great to have the opportunity to study for a degree twice in your life, one when we’re 20 and one when we’re 37 (and then maybe another when we’re 54!..)

But this one I read. And loved.

Hurston’s writing is incredible. She is up there with Oscar Wilde for having a quotable, memorable phrase on every page – something you want to cut out and stick up your wall:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death.

And one that really got me:

Women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth.

It feels like Hurston is taking my hand here. Like she has reached inside my head, and maybe the heads of women all over the world and all through time, and crystallised that thought. The dream is the truth. It is one of the best examples I can think of to illustrate that lovely Alan Bennett quote:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

Hurston, and the hero of the story Janie, are separated from me by time, by distance and by race. But there are times reading this book when I am Janie. I try not to include spoilers, because I want this blog to work as a place to find good book recommendations, but there is a moment when she whirls the cylinder round in the pistol, and hides the shotgun – and at this moment, coming as it does straight after a conversation full of love, I felt so moved and so proud. The dream is the truth. You must let de flowers see yuh sometimes. But she still hides the shotgun.

I will definitely make sure my daughter reads this book when the time is right.

Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a mixed race lady in the early 1900s living in Florida, through her three marriages and all the rewards and tribulations they bring. None of the marriages are perfect, especially in the context of our modern perspective on what constitutes a healthy relationship. But so much about Janie’s journey through these experiences to become the woman we see at the beginning and end of the book rings true. Reading this again, now at a similar age to Janie as she tells her story, has meant a lot to me. There is a vast difference in the nature of our experiences, but reading this book I am a woman stirring her strong feet in a pan of water, reflecting back on her life, and feeling satisfied.

Highly recommended.

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