This novel follows the story of Tashi, an African woman of the fictional Olinkan tribe, who chooses to undergo female circumcision (female genital mutilation, or FGM*), examining the reasons for her decision and the consequences that flow from it.

*In case you didn’t know, this is the practice of cutting out a woman’s (girl’s) sexual organs and closing her vagina. The practice varies, but involves cutting out some or all of the vulva (labia and clitoris) and then sewing up the vagina to leave only a tiny hole. The reason appears to be, at bottom, to make sexual activity of any kind difficult and pointless, and indeed as painful as possible, thereby simultaneously (1) preventing women from wanting sex with anyone that they don’t absolutely have to have sex with i.e. their husband and (2) giving husbands the opportunity to show how manly they are in being able to penetrate their sewn-up wives and enlarge the hole by force to custom-fit their own penis. Yes, really. Really.

The central theme of the book is the cause and effects of FGM as a cultural practice, and on this the book is horrifying. It shows you how and why the practice is allowed to continue, how women can allow their daughters to be mutilated, how women can mutilate the daughters who are brought to them – and how and why men’s actions ensure that it continues to happen. It shows you the physical consequences of FGM, the risks and dangers of the mutilation itself as well as the permanent damage that it does even when “successful”. It shows you the way that women are emotionally deadened, locking up a weeping child inside their hearts, because it is the only way that they can survive. It is harrowing.

As a personal account of one woman’s story, Possessing the Secret of Joy is heartbreaking. Tashi herself is not “bathed” at the proper time (as a baby or in early girlhood) but chooses to undergo FGM as an adult woman. The physical and emotional consequences for her personally, and the trauma of her earlier experiences when her older sister had bled to death following FGM, reach out across her whole life. Damaged physically and in her soul, the rest of her life is a struggle to come to terms with, even to acknowledge, what she has done. In the end, she triumphs – but, of course, that cannot mean that she lives happily ever after. She cannot.

Another key aspect of this novel is to expose the myth of choice.

Tashi chooses to undergo FGM. But in reality, she has no free or informed choice. She does it to fit in, to stop the teasing of other women, to become a proper woman herself, to honour the traditions of her people and their culture, to mark herself out as distinctly Olinkan, to give herself the chance of becoming a wife. She believes that it will improve her lot in life. She does not know what far-reaching, terrible consequences FGM will have for her health and wellbeing. It does not occur to her that she can lead a life without marriage. She does not realise that she has been lucky to escape FGM in her youth.

At no time does this novel speak of regret over Tashi’s choice. There can be no regret, because in reality there was no choice – all was inevitable, all was arranged and she herself had little to do but to follow the tracks laid down for her by others.

As a novel, I am unsure whether the book quite works. The story and the characters are powerfully drawn. The shifting viewpoint and the flashback/flashforward method of storytelling are apt, and well managed. But.

There is a sense in which the political purpose of the book – to make FGM come alive and show its full horror – trips over the story. The characters sometimes find themselves having to do what I call “a Judge John Deed”, that is they speak with the author’s words to make the author’s point, and it doesn’t come across quite right. It sounds as though the reader is being lectured, being told a story, being given a peek at the author’s agenda.

Another, connected problem for me is that this work falls between fiction and polemic. It is clearly intended to be polemical, but I do question whether its presentation as fiction undermines its persuasive power. How much of this, you wonder, did Walker make up? If that is true, you think, then it is horrifying – but is it true? Or is there an element of poetic licence in this?

These questions I will need to think about. At present, having only just finished the book, my response to it is perhaps only half-formed.

Thanks to Erika for putting me onto this one. Whether it will radically change my life it is too early to say – but, yes it really is a Book You Have To Read!