Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver

Disclaimer: Mild spoilers ahead.

I had never heard of Barbara Kingsolver nor the Poisonwood Bible before last week. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won several other awards and was on the Oprah Book Club list at one point but somehow skipped past my radar. Now I'm more than slightly embarrassed that I hadn't read it. Written in 1999, The Poisonwood Bible is the sort of novel that ends up on people's "best of" lists pretty quickly, which is how I found it (full disclosure). This excellent, if sometimes heavy-handed, novel simultaneously traces the history of The Belgian Congo/Republic of Congo/Zaire/Republic of Congo and the disintegration of an evangelical Baptist family from the American south. What's not to love?

I really enjoy novels that weave narratives around actual historical events, especially when A) the events factor heavily into the narrative (but not so much that the historical figures become characters themselves) and B) when the historical events are unfamiliar to me. In this case, I got both.


I am vaguely aware of Mobutu Sese Seko and the tumultuous history of The Democratic Republic of Congo/Zaire, but when I say "vague" I mean, "I've heard of Mobutu and I can extrapolate from what I know about African politics in general to hypothesize that his leadership didn't turn out particularly well for anyone except him." Throw in the Rumble in the Jungle and the Ebola virus and you have the totality of my knowledge on Congolese history. The Poisonwood Bible fleshed out my understanding of central African politics in a way a history book might not have been capable. And, to say that Mobutu was a bad leader is perhaps the single greatest understatement since "Genghis Khan may have killed a couple of people." So it was interesting to witness history unfold behind Kingsolver's narrative.

And what a narrative! If there is another literary motif that I enjoy, it is when bad guys (and particularly those of the Christian fundamentalist variety) get their comeuppance. While Kingsolver seems to love her five narrators (the four daughters and the mother) and develops their voices with tenderness and care from their childhood through middle age, she seems to have very little love loss for Nathan Price, the tragically misguided evangelical Baptist determined to "save" an entire nation. After a series of disasters that culminates in the death of one of the daughters, the remaining women in the family proceed to march off into the jungle and disperse.

Nathan Price is the worst kind of character. Partly because he is so plainly out of his element but also because he is so germane. Nathan Price is the sort of very real evil that exists in today's world and infects it in such unholy ways. He truly believes that he is doing God's work but, in reality is doing nothing but irreparable damage to himself, his family and the people he is determined to "save." There is no need for a suspension of disbelief to accept his brand of malevolence.

And while we are at it, what better metaphor for the relationship between Africa and America since the first European colonies gained independence than a Christian missionary in the jungle. The white man's burden. The noble savage revisited. All those heathen souls to be saved. And while we preach salvation in the eyes of our God, we'll take some of that cobalt and some of those diamonds along with us. Convert and corrupt. America's legacy in Africa, no doubt. I mean, who helped a monster such as Mobutu gain political power and supported one of the most corrupt regimes in the history of the world for over three decades? Nathan Price embodies all the swagger and arrogance of American policy in Africa. It's such a pleasure to watch his downfall. It's a shame it's only fiction.

So if Nathan Price represents America in this novel, who represents Africa, you ask? Well, this is where Kingsolver shines as an author. Much like Detroit in Jeffrey Eugenides stellar novel Middlesex, Kingsolver has a way of adding mass to her setting. So much so that Africa becomes a character in itself. No need for representative characters. The Africa in The Poisonwood Bible is s real it practically pulses out of the pages. Part of the reason Kingsolver is so successful is her use of history, as mentioned above. Her characters become involved in the very real (and often desperate) politics of the Congo. Much of those politics revolve around such basic ideas: food, clean water, medicine and transportation. It's hard for anyone, anywhere not to get politically active when a land's primary needs are so primal.

But Kingsolver's setting is more than that. Africa (and here I mean the Congo in specific, but also the continent in general) seeps into the pores of each member of the family (in different ways) and infects them (literally and metaphorically) for the rest of their lives. For me, as an expatriate living and working in Asia for the past decade, Kingsolver expresses the way a land can inhabit a soul, in a way that I could never. I relate to her characters completely (albeit with far less tragedy and malaria). Asia has infected my both literally and metaphorically to the point that my home country looks and feels more alien each time I return.

But I digress.

There are so many reasons to read this book, almost none of which I have described here. Although I did mention the novel was a tad heavy-handed at points... especially during Leah's narration, The Poisonwood Bible is worthy of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published in 1999. I'm really glad I stumbled upon this gem of a novel and my only regret is that I didn't find it sooner. Of course, given my similarities to the character's relationship with their adopted home, one might argue that it found me at just the right time.

Recommendation: Read at your earliest possible convenience.

Post-Script: The downside of the Kindle (besides the fact that you can't smell the book) is that you never get to see the cover of the book. This is the first time I have seen the cover of The Poisonwood Bible and it's gorgeous. Now I'll need to find a print copy of it.


Judaye said...

Your excellent review makes me want to read this again. I don't need to be more side tracked than I already am.

One of my classmates from the Congo read this book a few years ago and she said it was an accurate representative of her country and its people. Hurray Barbara Kingsolver.

Also I will probably have to reread A Passage To India. The English colonists in that book were affected by the landscape and people of India in ways that changed them forever. I did not fully understand the book the first time I read it.

Buried In Print said...

I recently listened to the World Book Club podcast with BK about this novel(I think it's from a couple of years ago, actually, but I tend to listen out of order: it's available in their archives though) and it made me want to re-read, which your post does as well. There are a couple of truly breath-taking scenes in it that I still recall: such a powerful read!

Rebecca said...

Love your reviews and I loved this title too. I have read it twice with two different book discussion groups and would read it again. Also I like your review site because of your variety and your witty reports. So much of the Dedicated Book Reviewers posts are such fluffy and girly titles. Thanks for being different.

Ryan said...

I have never read A Passage to India. Gonna put that on my list. I've also never heard of the World Book Club podcast either. Going to check that out. Finally, I'm not making a conscious effort to be different (although I can't imagine reading too many girly titles) I just read what I have access to at any particular time (though the Kindle is increasing my access a great deal).

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