The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
29 August, 2010
I seem to be lucking out on excellent reading material at the moment. One after the other I’m dazzled and left gaping in astonishment at the scope of the story and the sophistication of prose. I have heard so much about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and snapped it up at a charity shop many, many months ago. But I always seem to take time reading books from my TBR pile. Only when I was given the chance to see Kingsolver at the Southbank Centre did I think of picking up her book to read before the event. Of course, I’m a pretty slow reader so didn’t finish the book, but the first paragraph captivated me and I stayed captivated in the month it took me to finish the book (of course I was reading other books at the same time, I’m not that slow^^). But I didn’t want to hurry the book because I wanted to savour Kingsolver’s prose, which was tight, beautiful and without a single unnecessary word. I just loved everything about The Poisonwood Bible. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really in the mood to read a novel about Africa and I didn’t really know much about the history of Congo/Zaire. And I’m not such a fan of missionary fiction either. But a trusted friend of mine recommended her book and I had also heard so much about it.
Kingsolver somehow manages to turn a story of a zealous Baptist missionary in the 1960s who heads off to Congo to convert the Congolese to Christianity and save their souls as well as his own, towing a world-weary wife and four young daughters into an epic, yet intimate, tale in which you end up caring deeply about the characters. Nathan Price has wounds of his own from WWII and is afraid of nothing. His wife, Orleanna, is no longer in love with her husband but cannot escape to another life. His four daughters love and fear him at the same time. Nathan is a self-righteous misogynist who believes in his vocation to the detriment of all around him. Yet even though he preaches the love of Jesus, that love is seriously missing from his family life. Kingsolver deftly draws the turmoil, the silent accusations, the bickering in the family at the same time setting the story in the turbulent history of a changing Belgian Congo. The Price family go to Africa to change it but are forever changed by it.
The story is told in short chapters, giving each female family member a distinct voice that is very cleverly done. No one person is perfect. No one person is innocent, except maybe for the youngest child, Ruth May. We see each person as they grow and realise the predicament they are in within their own family and the world and how it affects the choices they make in their lives, even Rachel, the eldest daughter, hating Congo for disrupting her teens and her dream of becoming prom queen. Kingsolver describes her beautifully and you aren’t surprised by the woman she becomes.
We follow the course of Congo’s history and the birth of Zaire, American’s manipulations and betrayal and the predicament Africa is in because of its rich resources. The Poisonwood Bible isn’t just about the Price family and Congo, but about the nature of politics and political change. Reading this book, I felt angry and infinitely sad at the way Congo was played by the Western world, its people inconsequential. Yet wherever there is oppression, there is always revolution, and one is left hoping that things will balance out, even if not straight away.
I was inspired by the character of Anatole Ngemba, the intelligent, wise and passionate Congolese teacher ready to give everything for a fairer, democratic Congo for the Congolese people, ready to stand up for his beliefs and to protect his family, in complete contrast to Nathan Price. What a man.
The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant, heartfelt and passionate love letter to Africa and the problems it faces. Kingsolver manages to combine a family saga, a political treatise and a love story into a wonderful book and I finished the book impressed that she was able to keep my interest engaged in what is a complex, multi-thread narrative. I can’t recommend this enough and have already given my copy to my father, who spent most of his career as an expert on Africa. I hope he likes it as much as I did.
I’ve got The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize 2010, waiting on my TBR pile, and although I’ve got a lot of other titles to read before I get to it, I’ll be looking forward to reacquainting myself with Kingsolver’s beautiful prose.
Another one down for the TBR 2010 Challenge.