Picks and Pans Review: Possessing the Secret of Joy

updated 07/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alice Walker

Ever since the spectacular success of her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, people avidly read whatever Alice Walker writes. The Temple of My Familiar, a plodding but imaginative novel, was a 1989 best-seller, and a recent volume of poems sold a strong 40,000 copies. The irony is that Walker is seldom a breezy read, and her rigorously feminist outlook often foments controversy. Some libraries banned Purple because of its candid treatment of lesbianism, and critics were dismayed by Walker's seeming disregard for patriarchal traditions in Familiar.

Walker's bold and intriguing fifth novel is similarly challenging. At its center is Tashi, first introduced in The Color Purple as an African girl who falls in with American Christian missionaries, is baptized by them and eventually marries their son, Adam.

As a Christian, Tashi was spared the childhood tribal initiation ritual of female genital circumcision. But, as we learn in Joy, her sister bled to death following the procedure. That loss is but one of the memories that haunt Tashi as she re-examines her past through psychotherapy. Now known as Evelyn Johnson, she is living with Adam, a minister, in America.

Walker presents this Adam and Eve as a couple sprung from a misogynist African Eden. Feeling a deep need to assert her African identity, Tashi voluntarily undergoes the circumcision, to her husband's horror, and is left with a painful shuffling gait. The author makes clear that while cultural tradition sanctions such suffering, she herself regards it as unspeakable.

None of this is presented linearly—Walker's tale of anxiety and recovery unfolds in short chapters narrated by different characters. Walker weaves in some of her voluminous research into Jungian psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology and religious symbolism. Not all of this fits comfortably. Too often characters resort to slogans and bald explanations to make themselves clear. For example, when comparing Christian and tribal baptism practices, Tashi reflects: "I was baptized by...the missionary...and I held my tongue for I knew their church's water was a substitute for woman's blood."

In the end, such problems are minor, depriving Joy of grace, not power. The novel will trigger strong reactions, but then, it is a story neither for nor about the weak. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)

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