"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees
Their Eyes Were Watching God combines poetic narration and vernacular dialogue to tell the life story of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in 1930s Florida. It took me some time to get used to the dialect-heavy speech but once I familiarized myself with the patterns it got easier and quicker to read.
Janie is definitely a strong woman with a mind of her own, but she spends a lot of time being passive and silent. Rather than Janie herself, the story often focuses more on the men in her life and the people around them, portraying black folk life of the era. This probably reflects the author's other work as an anthropologist who studied black oral traditions. There are also conflicting depictions of violence against women. When Janie's second husband Jody — a domineering older man — hits her, it represents a point of no return in their deteriorating marriage. But when her third husband Tea Cake — a younger man who is her true love — hits her, it's described as "No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss." Despite these issues I felt for Janie and was moved by the heartbreaking ending.
My copy of this book, which I discovered amid a pile of secondhand imported books at a mall a few years ago, is complemented by a foreword, an afterword and a chronology of Hurston's life and work. The novel is made more remarkable by how it gained renewed attention decades after Hurston's fall into obscurity and subsequent death, ushering a revived interest in her books.