Picks and Pans Review: The Temple of My Familiar

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alice Walker

The title startles, as does the plot of this ultimately unsatisfying new novel from the 1984 Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Color Purple). Meant perhaps as an exploration of the interaction between memory and identity (Walker has acknowledged being influenced by these concerns in Southern black novelist Zora Neale Hurston's writings), the book resonates with New Age mysticism and pleas to preserve the environment as well as spiritual humanism.

The story revolves around the overlapping histories and conversations of three couples: Suwelo and Fanny; Carlotta and Arveyda; Mr. Hal and Miss Lissie. The novel, set mainly in Baltimore, is grounded in talk, lengthy narration, chapter-long monologues and dialogues that at times transcend the individual speakers and express a collective social perspective or racial memory. To maintain that perspective, the events are set around the globe and throughout human history—from Africa, both ancient and modern, to Latin America and the recent American past. The result is a novel that presumes the authority of myth: It falls short because Walker—a fine novelist—seldom displays the mythmaking skills her vision demands.

Much of the action turns on the revelations of the elderly Lissie (perhaps Walker's most inspired character), whose incarnations throughout the ages include man, woman and beast. When Walker tries to apply Lissie's essentially metaphoric visions into the realm of objective historical fact, however, the waters not only muddy but start overflowing the banks. ("The first witches to die at the stake were the daughters of the Moors who thought the 'Christian religion that flourished in Spain would let the Goddess of Africa 'pass' in the modern world.")

A reader willing to take a leap of faith could find credibility in these fables, if Walker possessed the fictional techniques to execute convincingly a blueprint of this complexity. Understanding the novel, let alone appreciating it, often demands a rigorous devotion that readers may find they don't have. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)

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