The Poisonwood Bible is a wonderful book which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone and everyone. I picked it up at a jumble sale and took it on holiday with me, hoping to be entertained for a couple of days, but instead found myself completely entwined with the story. Kingsolver’s ambitious narrative follows a Baptist minister, his wife and four daughters on their mission to the Congo in the late 1950s, as the region takes its first steps towards independence. The life of each family member is utterly changed by the experiences in the Congo, and even after the sudden and shocking ending of the mission the Congo remains the heart of darkness and of light in each life.
Orleanna Price, the mother, narrates the first chapter in each section, and each following chapter is narrated by a different daughter. This device allows the reader to become quickly and intimately acquainted with the family, but the father, Nathan, remains a distant and ominous figure, reported differently by each narrative. Rachel, the eldest, longs to return to her friends and home, Leah and Adah, the unidentical twins, become fascinated and at home in the Congo, and Ruth May, the baby, tries to understand what she sees around her, accepting her surroundings without surprise. Adah in particular offers fascinating, comic and razor-sharp portraits of those around her. Kingsolver creates an instantly recognizable voice for each speaker. The book encompasses with powerful themes such as freedom, redemption, free will, love vs. survival and many more. The girls have all been brought up on Nathan’s fire and brimstone religion, which leaves no room for compromise or the lessons that are to be learnt from other cultures. In the Congo, however, each member of the family learns that there are no simple choices; as Adah says: ‘Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads or tails with salvation on the other side…a two-faced goddess looking forward and back.’
The Poisonwood Bible is a wonderful achievement, weaving together the strands of religion, feminism, politics, morality and environmentalism in Kingsolver’s lyrical and layered prose, with a passionate and fulfilling love thrown in for good measure! I knew only the basics of America’s role in the Congo, and the book inspired me to read more about it, and it certainly opened my eyes to the less-than-spotless dealings that went on. It’s also wonderfully evocative of the surrounding environment, and the jungle is really a character in its own right. The death of one of the family comes as a shock and a tragedy, and yet the other members realize that every other family in the village has lost at least one person—why should their grief be any more important? This is the emotional climax of the book, and the numbness and disbelief that the characters feel is perfectly created and almost tangible.
The later sections of the book, however, are less successful than the parts set during Nathan’s mission. These later sections dip in and out of the characters’ lives in the ‘60s, ‘70s and the late ‘80s, and it is a little tricky to adjust as Nathan and Orleanna’s young daughters grow up to become mothers, hotel owners and scientists. Rachel, in particular, is somewhat sketchily drawn, still using the same malapropisms as when she was 16 (these ARE deliberate, and not typos, as one reviewer here suggested!) Anatole, too, is something of a cliché. It’s as if by virtue of being Congolese he must be a paragon, and it’s disappointing to see Kingsolver not create a more realistic character—is she afraid to create a flawed African? Also, the narrative seems more concerned with cramming in the true political events of these years than advancing the characters any further. By this stage, however, most readers will be so completely caught up in the novel and so connected to the characters that they will accept these flaws. And these are only minor flaws when set against the grand scale of the novel. It is beautiful, heart-breaking, wise, poetic, a damning indictment of colonialism, and a must-read for everybody.