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The Healing.

Gayl Jones. The Healing. Boston: Beacon, 1998. 283 pp. $23.00.

"And when you discover you can heal soon discover you can heal others." So reports Harlan Jane Eagleton, the central character of Gayl Jones's recent novel, The Healing. Returning to publishing after more than twenty years, Jones has crafted a dense story of love, betrayal, friendship, and transformation, told in the garrulous voice of the novel's protagonist. Harlan had been a beautician, then the manager of a minor black rock star, before becoming a faith healer following her first and most dramatic healing. The novel reveals the details of this first healing in its final pages, only after carefully unwrapping layer after layer of Harlan's story. When the novel ends, the reader has seen Harlan's metamorphosis from an "ordinary woman" to an extraordinary one, and has come to understand a great deal about human relationships in the process.

Gayl Jones's earlier novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), are brutally honest and powerfully written stories which document painful relationships between black women and men. Other works include a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, White Rat, and a book of poetry, Song for Anninho, as well as a book of criticism, Liberating Voices. While living in Europe in the early eighties, Jones also published a novel in Germany. Her return to the American publishing scene is a literary event unexpected by many. The Healing is both a testament to her growth and evidence of her enduring talent. Gone are many of the graphic and violent images that populated the pages of Corregidora and Eva's Man (although the latter novel's protagonist, Eva Canada, makes a cameo appearance early in The Healing in the conversation of a woman named Sally Canada. After she is healed by Harlan, Canada is anxious that Harlan understand she is no kin to the notorious Eva). What remains is an agile narrative voice infus ed with the black vernacular--in this case, a southern "Geechee" accent, a subtle but often highly entertaining humor, and a perceptive ability to represent the details of black women's lives.

Such details are often transformed into larger instances of meaning in the text. When Harlan offers her snack of sardines to the woman beside her on the bus, she is refused, and muses:

Ever since I seen that movie about the middle passage, though, and they talked about them Africans coming to the New World being packed in them slave ships like sardines in a can, and even showed a drawing of them Africans, that's supposed to be a famous drawing, so every time I eat sardines I think of that. Of course, I still likes the taste of that, and I don't think she refuse them sardines on account of that metaphor, though, 'cause I'm sure there's plenty of people eats sardines and don't think of that metaphor.)

This passage is typical of Harlan's suggestive commentary that includes everything from American ethnocentrism to the merits of rap music to the sweltering heat in Nairobi. At some points Jones seems to speak through Harlan, alluding to other texts in the African American literary tradition (ntozake shange's for colored only one example) and hypothesizing about some black women's wariness of white feminism. Harlan is no mere mouthpiece, however; she has a tale of her own to tell. As she relates it, the reader comes to trust Harlan's voice, and inevitably becomes more and more interested in her story as it unfolds through a series of flashbacks which span forty-six chapters.

Harlan recounts how she met the wealthy Afro-German Josef Ehelich von Fremd and his personal bodyguard, Nicholas Love, who witnessed her first healing and now travels to the towns where she heals to testify to her authenticity. Her hobby is betting on horses, and Josef's business is breeding and racing thoroughbreds. Their encounter at a racetrack in Saratoga leads to a romantic liaison and an awkward friendship. In a meandering reverse chronological order, Harlan goes on to tell the story of crashing a high-brow party and meeting her rock star employer, Joan Savage, who is so amused to discover that Harlan is a "real person," a beautician, that Joan hires Harlan as her make-up artist on the spot. Harlan eventually becomes Joan's business manager, and eventually is caught by Joan in a fling with Joan's ex-husband. The novel documents each woman's experience of this betrayal and the resultant strain on their relationship; in the process it tells the story of Harlan's brief career as a beautician in the shop o f her mother and grandmother, and her own estranged marriage to an anthropologist who is now following a Masai medicine woman around Eastern Africa.

Jones's skillfully woven novel is filled with colorful characters which somehow also achieve three-dimensionality; its stories are sometimes what Harlan calls "confabulatory" but still manage both credibility and poignancy. Harlan's grandmother, for example, insists that the hump in her back, eventually healed by Harlan, is due to the years she literally spent as an animal, the "Turtle Woman" in a traveling carnival show. While Harlan's skeptical mother counters that her grandmother merely wore a false plastic shell, the novel remains ambiguous about the "truth," and suggests that the facts of women's lives are open to interpretation. Indeed, the actual events of each woman's story may be less important than whatever lesson she, and we, can glean from her experience. Harlan's extended narration reveals, one by one, the lessons she has learned over the course of a lifetime, and the multiple truths of her existence.

Ultimately, The Healing is the story of one woman's physical and emotional renewal, the many experiences which shape her destiny and the individuals which populate her world. The reader senses that Harlan's spiritual transformation into a faith healer is as much the result of her own needs as it is a "gift of the spirit." In fact, Harlan's insistence on her ordinariness cannot erase the frequently extraordinary moments of her story. Harlan Jane Eagleton is ordinary in the way that every black woman is--that is, not ordinary at all, but a compelling testament to the human ability to transcend loss and to heal old wounds, in the self and in others.
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Author:Jenkins, Candice M.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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