Now is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker

Healing for a hurting world
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The Independent Culture

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From conservative quarters, Alice Walker has had her fair share of scepticism over the years on account of a wholehearted espousal of all things spiritual. She has been accused of shamanism, hippydom, Buddhism, of referring to people too often as "flowers" and of communicating with the departed on her back porch.

Certainly, her brand of black womanism (as opposed to feminism, a movement that tended to exclude black women) has become somewhat less urgent since the Pulitzer prize-winning The Color Purple, and her more recent writing does seem preoccupied with an ethereal interior world. But, thematically, Walker is still in tune with worthwhile issues.

The title of Now is the Time to Open Your Heart speaks much of the almost evangelical tone that Walker has adopted. It's a novel in very loose terms, although it could often be read as a memoir, essay or even sermon.

Much like Walker, the protagonist Kate is a widely published author in her later years with bisexual tendencies, left-wing ecologist politics and dreadlocks. Restless for a new sense of meaning in her life, she leaves her lover Yolo and takes a cathartic trip down the Colorado river with a group of like-minded women. Meanwhile, Yolo journeys to Hawaii for a similar transformative experience, and the novel's big question is whether or not the lovers will reunite.

It's not a gripping story. Kate's self-purging consists of an uncontrollable retching over the side of the boat, intense diarrhoea and the wearing of nappies to keep her dry.

An overflowing, overstated love of nature pervades the text, a reverence towards healing plants, serpents, moths and bats. And it's a good place to discover what women like to talk about around campfires (sex, men, ageing). More absorbing, though, is the recounting of Kate's stunningly visual dreams, where characters and events take on a more magnetic quality. Then there is the wisdom - the things that Walker wants to remind us of.

In a story of explorative journeys, natural landscape and love, she has given herself the right tools to get her message across. Kate's eventual sojourn in the Amazon jungle is spent with characters who have experienced pain or injustice of some kind: rape, imprisonment, incest, bulimia, drug addiction.

These characters are not fully devloped but act as symbols of a universal discontent that Walker sees as intensifying. "It's all so fucked," Kate says to a local shaman - this story is, not unexpectedly, rich in shamanic consciousness, native Indian custom and bouts of meditation. Where the text could easily be dismissed as utopian, idealistic or self-obsessed, the sense remains that indeed the world is steeped in trouble, and a reassessment and realignment of the self might be the way forward.

Walker's writing is languid and effortlessly graceful, and has not lost its power to prod at the sorest, most critical anxieties of the human condition. Simultaneously, it is a voice that remains firmly rooted in its black and female perspective.

It may be far too old-school to be talking about slavery or the "torture" of straightening afro hair, and it is possible that, after more than 20 books, Walker has less to say. But hers is an eternal message that never loses its relevance. We simply need to work a little harder, and endure a few more shamans, to hear it.

Diana Evans's first novel, '26a', will be published in April by Chatto & Windus

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