The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
This is a brilliant novel. It is intense, powerful and complex and deeply affecting.
It is also very disturbing. I found watching the characters painful progress, waiting for the inevitable and hoping that they would somehow survive did not make for easy reading. I found it disconcertingly easy to enter their bewildering world, (I also have four daughters,) to share their misfortunes. This tale is Biblical in its vastness; religion, sin, politics and redemption are major themes, with Old Testament prophecy and doom occurring throughout. I found great vulnerability in the characters, they demand emotional engagement and I cared deeply about their well being and at times I found it unbearably emotional (I had just given birth!) This is an amazing tale, but beware! I found that his book takes over and ordinary activities (like looking after newborn babies) will have to be put on hold.
Set in 1960, an evangelical Southern Baptist minister Nathan Price uproots his family from the security of Georgia to a missionary outpost in a backwater in the Belgian Congo. There are rich and unforgettable descriptions of this strange and beautiful country. The four sisters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, and mother Orleanna tell their individual and extraordinary stories of their personal journeys into the unknown. These are distinct, clear, matter of fact and totally believable voices, which still haunt me. Nathan is not given a voice, it is his actions which define him.
A tale of tragedy and darkness unfolds. Nathan’s obsessional and idealistic mission to create a church and lead the villagers to Salvation rapidly becomes a symbol of the clash of cultures. The family is forced to realise that they are neither welcome nor useful in this new land. Their growing alienation is reinforced by the vast, uncharted geography of the Congo set deep in Africa. Homesickness and fear start to consume Orleanna which forces a radical change in perspective: In the beginning they carry from home all they believe they will need in this new life: a curious collection of Betty Crocker cake mixes, seeds and Scriptures. Soon they find that these things are quite useless now, and that life had not prepared them for this place of extremes and danger. Africa has its own rules of survival and it becomes clear that their best efforts in bringing America to Africa are doomed. Soon the family must struggle to survive at all. Nathan clings to his dream, fundamentally believing that the Church will triumph over adversity. I felt great sympathy with this family as they are faced with a dreadful dilemma. The actual reasons for their downfall are many: religious zeal, physical frailty, ignorance and arrogance. Or simply their misfortune was to be there at all. This is a country so forgotten, damaged and exploited that it was bound to take its revenge.
This is also a story of a country’s dreadful history and its fight for independence. There are reminders here of ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the shocking cruelty of the colonials emerges, and the story becomes a desperate race against time as the family try to escape from the bloody political storm of the post-colonial era. Inevitably no one in this family could ever truly escape from the horrors.
Disillusionment replaces idealism as disease, failure and tragedy take over. However Nathan cannot admit defeat, and refuses to release them from his dream. They become prisoners of his derangement and finally, each in different ways, of Africa itself. In the end their escape is never going to be a quick or simple matter and any previous ideas of redemption must surely have to change.
"One of our favourite reads of all time is the Poisonwood Bible."
Frances Sibbert, Glasgow book group.