Alice Walker's novel of meditation, shamanism

April 18, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,Sun Staff

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, by Alice Walker. Random House. 240 pages. $24.95.

On the first day of her trip down the Colorado River, Kate Talkingtree -- the protagonist of Alice Walker's 10th novel -- asks: "Who would she be at the end of this journey?" The question sets the stage for a work touted by Random House as one woman's "spiritual adventure, quest for self and collision with love." Instead, with its disjointed narrative, distant characters and internal musings, Now is the Time reads more like psychic self-help.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for The Color Purple, Walker is a longtime peace activist, Buddhist and seeker of spiritual clarity. Never before, however, has she used fiction to delve so single-mindedly into the world of meditation, shamanism and other self-help techniques. In doing so, the talented, prolific writer -- much like her protagonist -- seems to have lost her bearings.

At age 57, Kate is disillusioned and dissatisfied. Despite her success as a writer and her relationship with a doting painter named Yolo, she is "no longer sure there was a path in life."

One night, Kate dreams about a dry, sand-filled riverbed. When she wakes, she realizes that her internal dry river is "unconnected to a wet one on Earth." A few pages later, Kate sets off on a three-week journey down the Colorado River with a disparate group of women -- all of them searching for something.

Like the rapids of the Colorado, the book soon becomes choppy and difficult to follow.

When she's not on the river, some of Kate's most revelatory moments come when she is sick to her stomach, an experience she finds cathartic: "A lot of my past lives came up, literally, in vomiting."

When she's not sick, she sits around the campfire with her female companions talking about love, sex and growing old.

At the end of her trip, Kate returns home to Yolo. Instead of embracing life with him, Kate delivers a surprising blow: She has chosen a life of celibacy. A few days later -- with little explanation -- she takes off again, this time to the Amazon with a sundry, disaffected cast of characters. At the same time, Yolo hops a plane to Hawaii.

Deep in the Amazonian rainforest, Kate attempts to heal by ingesting large amounts of yage, a hallucinogenic root given to her by a shaman named Armando. She falls into trances during which she communicates with her spiritual "Grandmother." A psychedelic drug, the yage also triggers several more episodes of vomiting: "She saw that even though throwing up itself is revolting, she had, after many sessions with Grandmother, learned to do it well; almost elegantly."

In her past novels, essays and collections of poetry, Walker has earned a place among the best contemporary African-American writers. In Now Is the Time, however, Walker fails to engage the reader in the lives of her characters -- all of whom seem like detached, fantastical elements of someone else's dream. Even more bizarre, and less compelling, is Yolo's experience in Hawaii, where he meets up with an ex-lover whose son has just died of a drug overdose.

Walker does succeed in conveying the chaos of today's world through Kate, who muses: "Humankind will not survive if we continue in this way, most of us living lives in which our own life is not the center." In making Kate's spiritual life the center of this book, however, Walker has alienated those readers who admire her storytelling skills.

Although Kate finds inner strength and clarity at the end of her spiritual quest, this book is likely to leave most readers feeling completely hollow.

Molly Knight is a reporter in The Sun's Annapolis bureau and former assistant to the books editor. Before joining The Sun, she wrote for publications including The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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