Book Review: Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
Preview… Rarely would I recommend a book that I consider so lacking in entertainment value. However, Alice Walker’s “Possessing the Secret of Joy” is worth reading for its many layers of meaning. This is a quick read that, while a bit erratic and hard-to-follow at times, hits the reader with deep emotions at its pivotal plot points.
Tashi moves from her native Olinka (a fictitious nation in Africa) to the western United States, adopting the new name ‘Evelyn’ along the way. This character was first introduced in Walker’s better known work “The Color Purple”. Tashi voluntarily undergoes Female Genital Mutilation as a young adult to honor her cultural roots. The procedure scars her both physically and mentally, resulting in her inability to enjoy anything in life and to instead fixate on the circumcision and its consequences.
Tashi vividly describes her difficulties with intercourse, the nearly impossible birthing process that leads to a simple-minded son, her husband’s gravitation towards a foreign mistress and ultimately her crime — all of which can be attributed to FGM. The reader will likely have compassion for Tashi but dislike her as a character regardless (not what one would expect). The fact that she voluntarily underwent the operation, even after her sister had died from its complications years earlier, adds further depth to the plot.
The story’s action is told in a nonlinear format which may confuse some readers at first. We learn early on that Tashi is going to trial for something, but only figure out why near the very end of the novel. Each microchapter is told from the perspective of many different characters, five of which are Tashi herself (distinguished by using varying combinations of her given and assumed names). This novel is steeped in Jungian psychology with Tashi representing varying archetypal patterns.
Though most members of Ann Arbor Classics Book Group either did not enjoy reading the novel or had a wishy-washy opinion of it, everyone agreed that they were glad to have read it and had the chance to discuss its example of the intersection of culture and human rights.
You may like this book if… you enjoy mulling over sociological and anthropological hot-button issues, you would like to know more about FGM and how it affects those who undergo it, you enjoy folklore or mythology, you understand Jungian theory, you like wondering how characters reached a certain point, you want to read a story that is very episodic and is quickly completed, you enjoy going from the specific to the general and adapting Tashi’s story to the larger FGM population or thinking about how similar concepts are practiced in other parts of the world
You may not like this book if… you really struggle with nonlinear storylines, you expect to like and to identify with the protagonist, it saddens you to learn about the consequences of FGM in such specific detail, you are a big fan of Toni Morrison (one cannot help to compare and be disappointed in Walker’s less satisfying literary style)