It's been a long time coming, but A Song Flung Up To Heaven triumphantly completes the six volumes of autobiography that began nearly 30 years ago with Maya Angelou's astonishingly successful I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings- a work that changed readers' perceptions of what autobiographical writing could achieve. That book sold over half a million copies in its Virago edition alone, and Angelou enthusiasts will relish this sixth volume, even though its pleasures are more subtle than its predecessors.
The impact of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (which evoked the author's adolescence and sexual abuse in Arkansas) was unprecedented. It combined frankness and emotional force with a nuanced, poetic style--a style that Angelou has perhaps found more elusive recently. But it's here again, as affecting as ever.
The new book deals with the years 1964-68, a turbulent period in which Angelou came back to America after her African sojourn. This, of course, was the time of the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; Angelou was on the point of working with the latter in the civil rights movement. As always, her voice is fresh and exhilarating as she deals with the tragedies and triumphs of a packed life, and there are some set-piece moments, such as her account of a misguided revenge she took on an ex-lover.
Many women have become celebrated as writers and poets, but Angelou has also enjoyed a distinguished career as a civil rights activist, producer, performer, actress and filmmaker. With all of this under her belt, she can be forgiven the note of self-congratulation that creeps in at times. But for those who've followed her unique writing, this is a journey into a fascinating life and a riveting picture of divided America, always informed with that clear vision Angelou is famous for. --Barry Forshaw