Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a quiet story of one Black woman's life two generations out from slavery, trying to be happy and find a life she'd like to live.
This book is the story of a life, the MC's life, and the relationships she has beginning as a young woman until she's in her forties or fifties. The narration is full of care, gently stepping in every once in a while when what the MC is thinking goes beyond what she feels safe to say (or even is ready to think).
I love how the MC is handled, especially the way the book covers a very long period of time by focusing in on the decision points, the times where the level of agency expressed by the MC is changing in some way. It keeps the focus on her and her choices rather that subjecting the reader to many pages covering spans of years where she wasn't steering her life. The sections describing the MC’s realization that her inner life and exterior presentation needed to be separate for her safety and self-preservation is so powerful and insightfully written. The whole book handles misogyny in a way that makes it both unmistakable for what it is but also understandable as something that women (specifically Black women in the USA one to two generations away from slavery) would put up with for their own survival. It has a way of describing a way the world was (and often still is) without making it too stressful to read. The secondary characters (even the ones we're maybe not supposed to like) are written really well and their motivations are understandable even, perhaps especially, when they conflict with the MC.
I'm mostly in awe, at the end of reading this, and I fear that my review feels sparse because of it. It feels steeped in life, soaking it in, as much as it can hold until it can take no more and lets everything out in a roaring wave. There's enough framing that we enter the main narrative with a question of why did the MC come back home after leaving, then the main story is so absorbing on its own merits that we forget about that for a little while. Until, at last, we have the answer and end where we began, with a quiet story told of a long life lived sometimes well, sometimes poorly, that isn't over yet.
CW for homophobia (minor), sexism, racism, racial slurs, slavery (backstory), rape (backstory), animal death, domestic abuse, domestic violence, violence, major character death.
Clear Your Shit Readathon 2020 prompt: Oldest publication