BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER'S SMILE
By Alice Walker
222 pp., $22.95
Alice Walker's latest novel opens with a dead father, Mr. Robinson, narrating a chapter entitled "Angels." He's haunting his younger daughter, Susannah, to learn how he might have been a better father. His voyeuristic observation of her recalls his profession as an anthropologist.
Denied funding for their work because they are black, Robinson and his wife, also an anthropologist, conducted their study of the Mundo people in Mexico through the sponsorship of their church. But they had to do so in the guise of missionaries.
Unfortunately, the "pastor" gets fooled by his own disguise. Dressed in priest's garb, he explains to his daughters that "his profession ... was based on the forgiveness of other people's sins." But Robinson is not the man for the job.
Though the father revels in his wife's sensuality, he is terrified by his older daughter's passion. When he discovers her tryst with a Mundo boy - a tryst meant to represent natural, unsullied sex - he whips her mercilessly, hoping to remake her in her sister's more demure image.
Instead, both girls are forever distanced from their father. The older one eats herself into oblivion, dying eventually from the rage she has savored and the mounds of food she has consumed trying to satisfy herself.
Susannah spends her life searching for a partner, traveling through a marriage, an affair, and a lesbian liaison, finding plenty of lust but precious little love.
Sex permeates these pages. Graphic and generally loveless, it is, for the most part, a means of manipulation - an attempt to control, win over, or avenge another. Surprisingly, Walker describes her novel as "a celebration of sexuality." In fact, it is the opposite.
Irene, an older Greek woman who becomes a kind of model for Susannah, is the smallest, yet mightiest, character in the novel. The product of a rape, Irene is a dwarf. Given early on to the church to raise, she lives in a small room, adjacent to the cemetery in which her mother is buried.
Though outcast from society, Irene is the most compassionate, well-rounded individual in the novel. She knows several languages and is an astute judge of character as well. Irene has not spent her time in seclusion feeling sorry for herself. As she says, "I am nearly seventy.... I never leave this place. What is there to do but to know everything that goes on in the world?"
One wonders whether the key to Irene's peace and independence is her virginity. Rather than spending her passion on a lover, Irene has turned it on the world - a practice that has made her wise.
Cleverly narrated and sometimes engaging, the story ultimately disappoints. Most disturbing of all is the novel's suggestion that by controlling his daughter's sexuality, Robinson controls her identity. Perhaps we are meant to learn, as the father does in the afterworld, that sex as the Mundo practice it is a redemptive act. But the Mundo are a dying band. Their natural acts have not helped them withstand the test of time. If we are meant to grieve this loss, more needed to be done to prove the value of their ways.
Without a doubt, Irene has the most to offer readers. Yet locating the only whole-souled character in the person of an outcast makes a well-lived life seem exceedingly hard to come by. Surely, there's a brighter vision available for fathers and their daughters.
* Trudy Palmer taught African-American literature at Tufts University.