The Poisonwood Bible: Barbara Kingsolver
Rating: 5 stars
Bought from: Stolen from my mother’s collection
Recommended For: Anyone who is a fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s other books, People interested in books about Africa or Expats, People who are interested in Religion or missionary work.
Favourite Quote: “As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.”
Barbara Kingsolver has to be my favourite author of all time, and this is my favourite book of hers. All her characters are works of art, clearly thought out and defined over a long period of time. They each have their own recognisable voice, and even when it is not automatically clear in the heading of each chapter who the narrator is going to be, within seconds you work it out.
The book itself tells the story of the Price family who, led by the father Nathan Price, a devout Baptist preacher, go to the Congo to work as missionaries. The story is told by his wife Orelanna, whose recollections begin most of the sections. There is also narrative interlaced from all four of his daughters. Rachel the oldest, has long white hair and a princess attitude. She is spoiled and selfish and very unaware of what is going on around her. She does not intend to be changed by Africa. Then there’s Leah and Adah, twins who are alike but not. Due to a complication in the womb Leah grew strong while feeding off Adah, a guilt she has to carry even though it was not her fault. Adah is twisted of body, shrunken slightly with a limp. She moves slowly and does not speak much. Her sections are punctuated with palindromes, as she reads and writes backwards and forwards. She is cynical and dismissive, used to watching and not taking part.
Leah is the most devout of the sisters, and desperate for their father’s approval. She knows his views of women and what they can accomplish, but she wants to prove him wrong. She wants to dazzle him with her knowledge, though later comes to realize his faults and turns her back on him. Her slow awakening to the man Nathan really is is one of the many gems of the book. And finally, there is Ruth May, five years old at the beginning of the book, willful and unafraid, she storms into the Congo, making friends with the children, climbing trees, picking up the language. She is funny and brave.
The books follows the family as they try to bring their way of life, and their religion, to the village of Kilanga. They come carrying all the wrong things – seeds that cannot grow in the jungle, packages of birthday cake mix that will never become cakes, and a religion that puzzles and scares the villagers. Words have many meaning there, depending on how you say them. When Nathan talks about baptism, he is also saying ‘to terrify.’ To say ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala’ may mean ‘Jesus is poisonwood’, or he is divine. The villagers are also afraid of baptism as they don’t go into the river; too many of their children have been killed by crocodiles. Nathan refuses to bend to Africa, believing his faith in god will see him through, and that this is all part of being tested. And so they carry on, learning about the land, trying to make their way through what they think will be only a year there, until tragedy strikes and the family falls apart. The later sections deal with the aftermath, and how the girls put their lives back together, some in Africa, some in America, but all forever changed.
I have read this book maybe three or four times. I think I take something new away from it every time. This time it was Africa that touched me, and the meddling of others that enraged me, as well as Nathan’s unwillingness to ever see anything from someone else’s point of view. I also couldn’t stand the way he treated his wife and daughters. They have to follow him in everything, from their home in America, to a strange and hostile land, and he always looks down on them, mostly because they are women and therefore not worth much. We never get his point of view, which I think is a good thing. I don’t think we’d be able to stomach let alone empathize with his thoughts. It’s hard enough to hear him depicted by one of his daughters through their young and somewhat naive eyes.
Adah was my favourite of the girls on my first read, and she is still my favourite now, (with Ruth May a close second) with her backward talking and humour. She may feel sorry for herself, that she is not initially the chosen child, but I think she gets over that, and spends time trying to come to terms with herself. Orleanna is a very interesting character too. I think I initially disliked her, because she spends so much of her time in Nathan’s shadow, so passive, just going along with whatever he says. It is not until the tragic event that she snaps out of it and begins to move, to do what she should have done long ago, namely, leave her husband and take her daughters to safety. But I had a lot of sympathy for her this time around. I think maybe she makes a lot of excuses for her behaviour, but that does not mean those excuses are not valid.
There’s a lot of politics within the novel also, and a lot of history. It is interesting to learn, and puts everything in context, as well as making the book work on many different levels. You can focus on the family and their plight, or you can look at them within the larger picture. Either way the books leaves me captivated, especially after having spend a great deal of time in East Africa sometime after my first reading of this novel. It brings to life the great expanses of African nature, and brings you down to size at the same time. There is nothing like living in a totally different, new and hostile culture to make you realise that if you want to survive let alone thrive, it is you that’s going to have to do the changing and not vice versa.