Thursday, February 05, 2015

Fiction Review: The Poisonwood Bible

After I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver for the first time in 1999, I added it to my mental list of Top 5 Books I’ve Ever Read, and it has stayed there ever since. When Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories announced a Poisonwood Bible Readalong in January, I decided to join in, re-read one of my favorite novels, and see if it stood the test of time. No question – it is still one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters are compelling, the writing is incredibly clever, and the engaging story carries intricate levels of meaning that just beg to be discussed.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the epic story of a Baptist missionary from Georgia who brings his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959 for a year that ends up dramatically changing all their lives forever. Nathan Price is fiercely and stubbornly passionate about his faith and his scripture and is single-minded in his goal of baptizing African children. His wife, Orleanna, goes along with the plan to live in Africa for a year, not realizing just how primitive it will be and bringing along all sorts of things that turn out to be quite useless in the jungle village they live in.

Along with them, they bring their four daughters. Sixteen-year old Rachel is sorely unprepared for life in the jungle; she is obsessed with fashion and make-up and proud of her talent to recite any commercial jingle her sisters can name. Twins Leah and Adah are a year younger than Rachel and quite different from each other. Leah is a studious tomboy who makes the best of life in Africa and looks up to her father, in spite of his flaws. Adah retains injuries from their gestation and birth, so she walks with a limp and never speaks, though she is perhaps the smartest of all of them. Little Ruth May is only 5-years old, so she adjusts the quickest to their new life and just wants to be friends with the half-naked African children around them.

One of the cleverest aspects of this novel is that Kingsolver alternates between each of the female characters in the story, giving them each their own voice and chapters, so that we see what is happening through their – sometimes very different – perspectives. This has become a more common literary technique now, but when this novel was first published, it was somewhat groundbreaking…and no one has ever done it as well as she did here.

Leah’s chapters are straightforward and smart, and we clearly see her admiration for her father and her gradual acknowledgement of his faults. Rachel is smart-alecky and trying to remain above all of the squalor around her. She thinks of herself as more adult than she is and is constantly – and hilariously – using malapropisms, as she does here, shortly after their arrival:

“Day one in the Congo, and here my brand-new tulip-tailored linen suit in Poison Green with square mother-of-pearl buttons was fixing to give up the goat.”

I frequently found myself laughing out loud while reading Rachel’s chapters. Adah, who doesn’t talk, writes well and is very, very clever and often sarcastic, referring to their minister father as Our Father, for example. Despite her silence – or perhaps because of it – she often sees through what’s happening on the surface to understand and describe what’s really going on beneath. And sweet Ruth May is a typical 5-year old, carefree and loving and wanting nothing more than to have some playmates. Within days of arriving, she has taught the village children (who don’t speak a word of English) to play Mother, May I. She reminds me of my own little sister.

Orleanna’s chapters open each section of the novel (cleverly named after sections of the Bible – Genesis, The Revelations, Exodus, etc.). Hers are the only sections not written in present tense but are her observations many decades later, looking back with hindsight on what happened and how it affected each of them. And plenty happens. The Price family is ill prepared for the jungle and has the misfortune to be in the Congo at the time its revolution begins. Disaster strikes the family, and the novel follows them through many decades afterward, as we see how each of the girls responded to the challenges and tragedies they faced.

I could write about this novel for many more pages, but that would deprive you of the joy of discovering its secrets and intricacies for yourself. The Posionwood Bible has nonstop action, plenty of suspense, and a compelling narrative that will have you turning the pages compulsively long past bedtime. Kingsolver has also built in layers of meaning, as the family’s travails occur against the backdrop of the political and economic turmoil of the Congo (and much of the rest of Africa), making this a superb novel for book groups. I thoroughly enjoyed the online discussions this month in the Readalong. In short, you must read this book. It is breath-takingly amazing and unique – I bet you’ll add it to your own Best Books Ever list. It’s going back on my bookshelf, where I look forward to reading it a third time sometime in the future.

543 pages, Perennial (HarperCollins)

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