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Praisesong for the Widow Paperback – April 16, 1984
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On a Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson begins to have symptoms of both mental and physical illness. Driven by needs she doesn't understand, she leaves the cruise and finds herself adrift in a tide of Patois-speaking islanders, who are all intent on a cultural pilgrimage to a neighboring island. Her meeting with an island patriarch draws her into the pilgrimage as well. There, she learns that this is the culture she abandoned at the same time she abandoned her working-class roots.
The flashbacks to her life with her husband Jay not only chronicle her life preceding the cruise but also give a greater understanding of Avey as she throws herself headlong into a mysterious journey of self-discovery. The greater familiarity with the character is one of the book's strongest points.
The reason the book only rates four stars is that its symbolism makes it inaccessible when simply read for pleasure. This is not an offense worthy of a whole star, so my actual rating is four and a half stars, or 90%.
The symbolism sprinkled throughout the book does provide constant rewards, though- like Shakespeare, you can never finish gaining new insight through re-reading.
I feel confident in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction. The symbolism was made apparent to me, as I read the book as part of a writing course. With that in mind, use only as directed.
Marshall intersperses flashbacks from Avey's marriage and memories from her childhood with scenes from her impulsive flight to Grenada and her equally spontaneous escape with a group of complete strangers to the offshore island of Carriacou. What becomes apparent to the reader, as well as to Avey, is that she has lost touch with who she is and where she came from: not only with her South Carolina roots and her days as a young adult in Harlem and on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, but also with the African heritage that her aunt had often urged on her as a child. It is not simply that she has become "too white" but rather that the process of assimilation into an unquestioning and comfortable suburban life has made her not much of anything at all.
There is a certain pedantic quality to Marshall's prose, a sporadic appeal to heavy-handed symbolism that turns the book's themes into a capitalized Message: don't abandon your roots. But the intricate portrait of Avey Johnson largely dispels the thought that Marshall is simply preaching; this is indeed a praisesong for a widow rather than a sermon for readers. In fact, if I were to choose one word to summarize Marshall's prose here it would be "visceral." The language she uses to describe Avey Johnson's collapse and reawakening is both guttural and painstaking; the reader is not simply an observer of her trepidation, mortification, and confusion but also a participant in the blank nightmare her life has become. (I can't imagine the reader that won't be squeamishly horrified when Avey's emotional troubles turn physical.) While the final destination of Avey Johnson's late-life voyage is no surprise, the path she takes to get there is both excruciating and inspiring.