Monday, 14 June 2010

The Posionwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

Every month I attend a book group, and this was last month’s choice and one I wasn’t too happy about when it won the vote. I don’t really like books about Africa, I’ve tried a number of times and just seemed to be a subject matter that doesn’t appeal to me. So this was a very pleasant surprise – I thought it was great.

The Poisonwood Bible is told by Orleanna Price and her four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May) as they follow their missionary father, Nathan, to the Congo in the 1950s. Each section of the book is introduced by Orleanna but subsequent smaller sections are told by each of her four daughters. Each daughter has a very distinctive voice, which impressed me and made this format easy to follow, something that many other authors using multiple narrators have failed at. Hearing the stories from the heart of the family makes you feel included and you develop a strong understanding of the family dynamic and sympathise to their increasingly awful situation. Notably, Nathan never narrates, highlighting the fact that he seems completely blind to what the rest of the family are feeling and experiencing.

The prose in this book is quite beautiful, artfully illustrating the wild surroundings of the Congo and the girls’ emotions and reactions to their new lives. My favourite sections were those written by Adah. She and Leah are twins and she is the ‘backwards’ twin with one half of her body damaged due to lack of oxygen during birth. She has difficulties walking and barely speaks but loves word play, particularly creating her own palindrome hymns (‘oh god, dog ho!’) which I found very entertaining as well as unusual.

Together the sisters face challenges which their father has in no way prepared them for; his opinions and attitude, both religious and not, are strong and inflexible leaving no room for cultural changes. While the rest of the family adapt to their new surrounds Nathan Price seems to adopt the strategy of keeping his head down and charging ahead regardless. He cannot understand why so many of his religious teachings are disregarded and ignored by the locals in the village because he simply will not listen to them. One striking example is that he desperately wants to baptise the unwilling congregation in the river and is offended when they refuse, however we later find out that this is because a young child was recently eaten by a crocodile in the said river. But Nathan won’t listen, blindly assuming he always knows what is best as he views the Congolese as savages. Personally I found Nathan deeply infuriating and was constantly waiting for the moment when Orleanna would reach the end of her tether and save her daughters from the Congo which grows increasingly dangerous for the family.

I much I have raved I must admit the later sections of the book are more disappointing, as we return to the family in later stages of life, although none remain in the Congo we see how their experiences continue to effect their lives. This portion of the book felt drawn out – it would have been much better as an epilogue rather than almost a third of the story, however in my memory the stories told by four girls dealing with a life they haven’t chosen for themselves shines through.

This book artfully weaves together themes of religion, feminism, culture, politics, even environmental issues, and although at times these themes quite blatant I found at no part does Kingsolver seem preachy or overly aggressive in addressing these issues. The strongest idea has to be that so many foreigners come into Africa thinking they can fix it, but Africa is a very different place to the rest of the world, and has to be treated as such; if it was that easy to fix, someone would have done it already.

Although none of the messages are new I think it is unusual to see so many themes so deftly covered and inter-woven whilst still providing the reader with such a vivid and enjoyable story.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to everyone and will definitely be looking into reading more of Barbara Kingsolver’s work.

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