Dinah Birch

  • The Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker
    Women’s Press, 405 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7043 5041 6
  • The Fog Line by Carol Birch
    Bloomsbury, 248 pp, £13.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0453 9
  • Home Life Four by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Duckworth, 169 pp, £9.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2297 8
  • The Fly in the Ointment by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Duckworth, 132 pp, £10.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2296 X
  • Words of Love by Philip Norman
    Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp, £11.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 241 12586 3

American black people describe their wildest girls as ‘womanish’. Alice Walker recalls that traditional usage in defining her own work: she is interested in ‘womanist’ rather than ‘feminist’ writing. ‘Womanist’ texts proclaim a double rebellion, fusing the long-suppressed anger of women with that of blacks. Alice Walker’s most forceful books to date (the novel The Color Purple, published in 1982, followed by a collection of essays, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, in 1983) locates the identity of black women in the troubled perspectives of the past. In this she shares in a wider movement. The growing body of black literature in America asserts a need to make good what has come to seem one of the most damaging depredations imposed by slavery and exploitation: the loss of a known place in history.

The Temple of my Familiar is a massive expansion of this ambition, in terms of geography and of time itself. The book has an extraordinary range, including North America, South America, Europe and Africa within its compass. One of its central characters is a prosperous black man called Suwelo, bewildered by the loss of his wife Fanny. Suwelo is a history teacher. ‘He wanted American history, the stuff he taught, to forever be the centre of everyone’s attention. What a few white men thought, and did.’ The changing mind of Suwelo, as he painfully learns to place the definitions of academic history in a different context, is one of the threads that draw together this complicated book. His wife is caught up in another story, for she is a granddaughter of Miss Celie, one of the sturdy heroines of The Color Purple. Fanny looks to the future, sharing the resilience represented by the continuing love between Miss Celie and Miss Shug.

But the most inventive and controversial aspect of the novel is its contemplation of the past. Fleeing his dejection, Suwelo comes to stay in an inherited house in Baltimore. There he meets Lissie – small, old and very black. Lissie has an extraordinary gift. Having passed through multiple generations of lives, she is able to remember them all. She embodies what Suwelo would prefer to pass over: the unrecorded experiences of suffering which lie beneath the authorised versions of history. Suwelo’s uneasy success floats on a sea of defeat and misery. The strongest writing in The Temple of my Familiar plumbs the forgotten lives of the servants and slaves who are the ancestors of America’s black communities.

Lissie’s memories, however, reach beyond the origins of slavery in Africa. Alice Walker wants us to think about how it felt to be human before history wove its corrupted web round our lives. Like other novelists meditating on that inscrutable question, she comes up with answers that reveal more about her own convictions and aspirations than they do about the possible conditions of prehistory. The Temple of My Familiar is founded on an ancient utopia. Lissie recalls an immeasurably distant past when men and women lived apart, coming together only for the purposes of procreation. Power-seeking entered the scene when the sexes attempted co-habitation, and men began to claim proprietorial rights over women and children. The aggression that resulted poisoned not only the lives of warring humanity, but also the intimacy that had previously existed between people and animals. The novel’s ideal of a better past includes a fantasy of a time in which apes and lions shared our world in a peaceful companionship.

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[*] Home Life: Book Three is out now in paperback (Fontana, 160 pp., £3.99, 23 November, 0 00 654381 2).

[†] Now reissued by Hamish Hamilton (331 pp., £13.95, 26 October, 0241 10255 3).