Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
The Healing is the story of a woman’s journey to wholeness and self-knowledge. Rather than telling the story in strict chronological order, the novel opens at a time when its protagonist is near the achievement of her quest. Harlan Jane Eagleton is on her way by bus to yet another “little tank town,” to perform faith healing at a church. The bus ride, the healing ritual itself, and the novel’s side events are all narrated in a run-on, stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative voice is usually Harlan’s, but it often slides into those of other characters, either spoken or assumed by Harlan. The novel’s opening is confusing but intriguing, and it leads into an extended series of flashbacks.
Harlan Jane was brought up in Louisville, Kentucky, by her mother and grandmother, who owned a beauty salon. Harlan too becomes a beautician. She meets Joan, the rock singer, at a party. Joan, always keen on fashion experiments, asks for a sample makeup job. Harlan hires on as the singer’s makeup person, starts helping with her books as well, and ends up working as her manager. She negotiates more and better deals than the singer had been getting on her own, but Joan remains a small fish in the ocean of pop music.
The relationship that develops between Harlan and Joan is complex and often infuriating to both. They spend much time together when on tour, and they share a running commentary on such diverse topics as popular culture, the rarity of African American scientists, and even the pros and cons of song titles. Joan’s manipulative nature begins to wear on Harlan, however, and after she sets her up for a liaison with Joan’s ex-husband Jamey, sexual jealousy is added to their complicated friendship.
In between tours, Joan retreats to a farm she owns in Minnesota. Harlan Jane goes off to play the ponies at various racetracks. At Saratoga she meets Josef, who calls himself an arbitrager but who is in America to buy and breed top-ranking thoroughbreds. Josef surrounds himself with bodyguards; he is paranoid about some mysterious danger. Although Harlan enjoys the luxury she shares during their affair, she knows early on that they have little in common besides horseracing. They end up with a casual friendship.
The narrative flows back and forth in time. There are scenes from Harlan’s marriage and from her grandmother’s beauty shop. Harlan and Norvelle have a good rapport until he wants to stay in Africa, following a Masai medicine woman he is studying. Grandmother Jaboti teaches Harlan lessons in life by word and example, including the importance of “confabulation” and imagination.
The tensions simmering between Harlan and her employer explode over a group of Caribbean refugees. Joan has financed their ill-fated invasion of their island. Harlan accuses her of quixotically playing with the lives of people they had both promised to protect. She dreams that Joan fires her. Instead, while both are at Josef’s horse farm, Joan pulls a knife on her. It goes into her chest and seems to touch bone. Nicholas, still acting as bodyguard, rushes to deflect Joan, but before he can do anything, the knife falls out. Harlan puts her hand to the wound, and it heals. This is the start of Harlan Jane’s calling as a healer. At the novel’s conclusion, she finds the man she first loved, Norvelle, waiting for her at her current stop.
Sources for Further Study
Grossman, Judith. “The Healing.” Review of The Healing, by Gayl Jones. The Women’s Review of Books 15 (March, 1998): 15. Comprehensive review that notes Jones’s consistent use of women’s...
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voices and her characters’ “open destinies.”
Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. A book of history and criticism by the author. Examines the role of oral tradition, folklore, and music in African American literature.
Mills, Fiona, ed. After the Pain: Critical Essays on Gayl Jones. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Essays from a feminist perspective. Articles on The Healing examine its Afro-Latino elements, jazz rhythms in Jones’s prose, and other topics.
Nelson, Jill. “Hiding from Salvation.” The Nation 266 (May 25, 1998): 30. Review article with comments on Jones as a private writer in a demandingly public age.
Woodson, Jacqueline. “The Healing.” Review of The Healing, by Gayl Jones. Artforum International, March, 1998, p. S24. Points out the novel’s contemplative qualities and its many possibly imagined elements.