THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
Mariner Books, 2015
originally published in 1982
Any of the adjectives you could use to describe The Color Purple – gorgeous, moving, heart-wrenching, etc – unfortunately sound rather trite, but this book is the real deal. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that follows the relationship between two sisters who are torn apart early in life, but who nevertheless spend a lifetime trying to communicate with one another. The protagonist Celie is married off to an abusive husband, while her sister Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Celie’s husband, known only as Mr. ____, hides the letters that Nettie writes to Celie, who believes for years that her sister is dead. Robbed of contact with the only person who ever loved her, Celie contents herself by writing a series of letters that she addresses ‘Dear God’.
Celie’s voice is arguably the strongest element of this novel; Walker captures the voice of a poor, uneducated woman living in the American south in the 1900s with a vibrant authenticity. Nettie’s voice is similarly convincing, though distinct; it’s filled with a similar dialect but more polished and educated – this book is a case study in how to strengthen characterization through voice. The relationship between these two sisters is the heart and soul of The Color Purple, though Celie’s relationship with God and its different manifestations over time provides the novel with one of its most salient themes that develops beautifully over time. The novel’s title comes from an exchange where Celie’s lover challenges Celie’s conception of God as a larger-than-life white man; she tells Celie that she doesn’t think of God as a person, but as an invisible force that’s inside all of us, and then remarks “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
So while this book is relentlessly brutal, documenting rape and abuse and pervasive racism, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it, and it’s ultimately an unexpectedly empowering tale. This book is every bit as beautiful as it is disturbing.
One last note: I don’t want to derail this review too drastically with a lengthy meditation on whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, but suffice to say that being aware of Alice Walker’s well-documented antisemitism did impact my reading experience somewhat, and I don’t think I’ll be able to call this as all-time favorite. But still, it would be wrong to deny this book of its merits and cultural impact. I can’t judge anyone else for deciding not to pick this up out of a discomfort with Walker’s personal beliefs, but if you’re on the fence, I do think it’s well worth reading.
You can pick up a copy of The Color Purple here on Book Depository.