Fact or fiction, the hurt's real

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2000, 12:00am

LIKE THE LETTER that opens this book, there is something false about the way in which Alice Walker deals with the lesions left when love dies - the main theme of this collection of stories.

Reminiscent of missives written not 'for your eyes only' but for a wider audience, To My Young Husband (subtitled Memoir Of A Marriage ) recounts a trip the writer makes to the small house she and her 'beloved' shared in Mississippi, when they were the 'happiest, most in love' people - a couple friends believed would never part.

But split they did, after a decade, she to continue life as a writer and to explore same-sex relationships, he to remarry and to become someone alien. 'It is as if the young man I knew is dead, and you have colonised his early life,' she laments, adding: 'Together we were good . . . too good to have those years stolen from us, even by our grief.'

Merging fact with fiction, The Way Forward Is With A Broken Heart swerves along a road that throws up such barriers as racism and sexism. Typical Walker fare, one might think. Except that mixing the imagined with the real smacks of cowardice. Why hide behind pretend people (some are presented with the caveat 'not her/his real name') and scenarios when often their identities and stories are clear and seemingly true?

Mel Leventhal, the white civil-rights lawyer Walker married in 1967 and divorced nine years later, turns up time and again as the other half of several inter-racial partnerships involving the author, in her different personae.

In Memoir (which takes up a quarter of this book of 12 stories), Walker recalls how their attempt to have a normal life in the South 'wore us out'. She remembers the panic she felt every day as her husband took off to slay the 'dragons of racism and ignorance', leaving her vulnerable and at a loss in a 'violent, and often boring, environment'. 'I learned to shop in a way that took hours rather than minutes,' she writes.

While a therapeutic aura bathes many of the stories, the benefits are probably felt only by the author herself. Too often one feels excluded from the in-group of players, that distance exacerbated by 'children of the 60s' type experiences that characterise such tales as Conscious Delivery. In this, the protagonist rents a cabin near the coast for herself, her lover, her lover's wife, and their child. The women - who take turns to sleep with the man - explore the possibility of a sisterhood that might involve 'sitting outdoors on the steps in the evening braiding each other's hair'. A tender scenario it may be; something this reader can relate to it's not.

Perseverance is recommended, however. Wedged between the 'bigger' stories are wonderful tales for which Walker - a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of eight novels, including The Colour Purple, two collections of short stories and five volumes of poetry - deserves praise. Charms, about a cad who deceives the woman of his dreams, is one. Olive Oil, in which lovers anoint each other with cooking emollients, is another.

Walker's willingness to offer strangers an insight into her failed marriage suggests strength. That she had to camouflage episodes, however, reveals, a healing process that's far from over.

The Way Forward Is

With A Broken Heart

by Alice Walker

Random House $190