Alice Walker’s most famous novel is her 1982 classic, ‘The Colour Purple.’ In it, she takes an abused black teenager living in the deep South, and turns her story into a wonderfully life-affirming tale of female solidarity and the possibility for agency and hope against the odds. ‘The Colour Purple’ is quite unbelievably uplifting considering its setting and subject matter, a fact I desperately tried to keep in mind when starting to read ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy.’ ‘Possessing the Secret’ is the sequel to ‘The Colour Purple’; it’s not about unchallenged domestic abuse though, it’s about Female Genital Mutilation.
While I’d always recommend anyone new to Walker starts with ‘The Colour Purple,’ the two books do not need to be read together or in sequence. The characters belong in the same worlds, but their stories are so different the books exist in their own spaces. One reason for this is the redemptive fairy-tale quality to ‘The Colour Purple.’ Although the journey is not smooth, the book has a forward momentum, moving away from suffering towards internal and external peace. It’s a powerful message, both appealing and unsentimental. In contrast, ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ fights such linear story telling. It jumps between different narrators and time periods, echoing the trauma suffered by the protagonist. Truths are hidden and rarely celebrated, hardly surprising given the pressure within the book to literally cut off emotion, expression and freedom from so many female characters.
The main character in the novel is Testi, a deeply troubled woman who makes a small appearance in ‘The Colour Purple’ as the happy and forthright girl who rejects Western influences when she decides ‘to have the female initiation ceremony … Tashi was happy that the initiation ceremony isn’t done in Europe or America, said Olivia. That makes it even more valuable to her‘. ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ follows the devastating consequences of this decision, on Tashi and on those around her. Poor Tashi is shown to be so wrong, from her rebellious acceptance of her culture’s traditions to her false belief that such customs are absent in the West. Walker is controlled in her focus though, and Tashi’s story is never allowed to dominate the novel, instead it is used as a case study for a problem that goes far beyond the personal.
As the narrative lurches forwards and backwards in stuttering bursts, the readers find themselves as challenged as Tashi is. There is a clear binary opposition between the powerful and the powerless, but how this actually fits over racial, geographical, educational and gender divides is often less clear. For much of the book, it is women, more than men, who are shown to perpetuate the traditional mutilation; the potent women, pitiful men dynamic that gives ‘The Colour Purple’ its empowering and unexpected ending is tragically subverted in this later novel.
Softening the pain of the story is Walker’s beautiful prose. Soothing and fluid, the writing style turns this into a stridently powerful novel, rather than a depressing yet ‘important’ modern classic. I realise the book is a hard sell, but I do recommend at least reading the opening story if you ever see it in a shop or library. The novel begins with a beautiful, haunting allegorical tale; it was enough to remind me that no one educates, alarms and comforts like Alice Walker. I wasn’t disappointed. The book is challenging but rewarding, honest but sympathetic to both its characters and its readers. A modern and sadly all-to-relevant classic for the 21st century.