Alice Walker, most widely recognized for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple, often writes about the difficult themes of racial injustice and the oppression of women. In By the Light of My Father's Smile, however, Walker mostly celebrates and revels in the happy subject of sex. And she begins her imaginative paean to sexuality without much foreplay. By page nine Susannah Robinson, a sexy African-American writer, is out of her "thin chemise" and into her lover Pauline. Described in unabashed and explicit detail, the scene is narrated by the hovering voyeuristic angel of Susannah's father, the late Robinson Sr. He's hoping to nudge her consciousness towards a resolution of their relationship.
Robinson Sr. is just one of a host of odd-ball and appealing narrators, some of whom are also dead, not that that stops them from talking. There's Susannah, Robinson's lusty daughter; Madalena, who describes herself as looking like "Aunt Jemima disguised as Punk Dyke with my thrice-pierced nose, green hair, and jelly-plump arms;" Pauline, Susannah's hottie of a girlfriend; Petros, Susannah's Greek ex-husband; and Manuelito, who starts off alive as Magdalena's lover, and ends up dead and becomes Robinson Sr.'s celestial guide. With so many voices there's sometimes a little more discord than harmony, but it's worth it.
Nearly all the narrators recall an incident from the Robinsons' past, which has profoundly affected each of them. As a young man, Robinson Sr. posed as a Christian missionary to get funding for his anthropological research of an uninhibited and enlightened African/Mexican Indian tribe called the Mundo. He gets sucked into the black cloth, as the Mundo say, and, falling for his own disguise of a preacher, becomes intolerant and puritanical. So, when Robinson Sr. finds out Magdalena has been gettin' down with one of the beautiful Mundo boys, he gives her the hiding of her life, effectively alienating himself from his daughters forever. At this point, Susannah's and Magdalena's lives diverge sharply, and the novel becomes a parable for the importance of a happy sexuality that is not oppressed by one's father, religion, or culture.
After Magdalena's beating, she slips into a downward spiral of suicidal gluttony. The implausible fate of Magdalena's character, however, seems contrived as a vehicle for Walker's message of the need for a triumphant sexuality. There's just not enough psychological background for this character to make this one incident in her childhood seem a likely cause for her ruin. And some of the symbolism regarding her seems heavy-handed: she pierces her labia from which she dangles a crucifix--presumably to show that her sexuality, and female sexuality in general, is mangled and demonized by the church. But it makes for an interesting visual.
Susannah's character, however, rings true and beautifully evinces how a positive sexuality effects a mature spirituality. She luxuriates in the erotic, enlightened about herself and her lovers by its force. She tells her lover Pauline, "Without our relationship I would never have known how far away I was from what could be. What heights of spirit one might reach through such a physical act."
It's the way that Walker writes the sex scenes that gives the novel a sense of inclusivity. Not only is the reader treated to a myriad of steamy love scenes, but also a whole smorgasbord of varied sexualities. With her large cast of characters, everyone's orientation--gay, straight, bisexual, undecided--gets airtime. More than just allowing the reader to feel like their life is represented, this inclusivity reinforces the notion that any love is good love.
By The Light of My Father's Smile--with its voluptuous sex scenes, spying angels, and a sage dwarf--reads, at times, like a gleeful and erotic fairy tale but with insight and pathos. Walker's unadorned prose seems doled out to evoke a simple pleasure, and though the characters are drawn somewhat sketchily, this places more emphasis on Walker's worthy message--that not only is sex great fun, it's good for the soul. (Random House, cloth, $22.95)
Schechner, Karen. Review. Weekly Alibi. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Nov. 11, 1998.
Published by Luminarium through Express Written Permission.
©1999 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved. Created on February July 8, 1999 by Anniina Jokinen.