Well, after the subway debacle, I was finally reunited with The Poisonwood Bible thanks to the lovely Claire, and I am pleased to report that it really was worth the wait. A rich tapestry of voices exploring the parallel downfall of a Southern Baptist preacher’s family and the governing forces of the Belgian Congo, the book tells the story of Nathan Price, the aforementioned preacher, his wife Orleanna, and their four daughters; Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, as they attempt to live alongside villagers and bring their ‘superior’ ways of life to bear on this ‘backward’ country. The novel is told only from the women of the family’s point of view, and these five narratives together paint a picture of a family woefully unprepared for what would face them, and fatally fractured due to the abusive presence of Nathan and his wife and children’s lack of shared belief in his mission.
The man Orleanna married never made it back from the war; the Nathan Price she knew was destroyed by what he saw and experienced on the battlefield. Wracked with guilt for surviving when his company didn’t, his religion becomes even more extreme and rigid than it was before, and he allows himself no worldly pleasures, surely, in some measure, to atone for the sin he believes himself to have committed. He believes it is God’s will for him to go to the Congo and preach the Gospel, and as such, his family, unwillingly, must follow. Used to the conveniences of mid century urban America, the Prices go on their African adventure armed with nothing but Betty Crocker cake mixes. Nathan, having made no attempt to learn anything about the Congolese people, their customs, culture or languages, sets about imposing his own version of Christianity on the local villagers, and ignores the advice of locals who warn him that his preaching will never get him anywhere with people who live in a world where day to day survival, and not the state of their souls, is paramount. While he sets about trying to convert a people who have no wish, or need, to be converted, his wife and daughters have to deal with the fallout of his decision to move them to an isolated village in the heart of the jungle, with little access to food or clean water, no home comforts and a climate and flora and fauna completely alien to their experience.
Orleanna and her daughters each take turns at narrating their own experiences, and they all have widely different tales to tell. Rachel, the eldest at 16, is shallow and more concerned about her hair than the fate of the people they have come to help. She hates her father and is desperate to go home, seeing clearly that the decision to come to the Congo was an erroneous one, and will only lead to disaster. Leah is 15 at the start of the novel, and the only one of the daughters to share her father’s faith. She longs for his approval and notice, and cannot understand her mother and sisters’ lack of support for their mission. However, it doesn’t take long for the wool to be pulled from her eyes, and as she befriends locals and develops a close relationship with Anatole, the local schoolteacher and her father’s translator, she realises that the simple view she had of missionary work and the ‘ignorance’ of the Congolese couldn’t have been more wrong. Adah, Leah’s twin, was born with a serious brain injury, and as such, only half of her body works properly, causing the other half to be crippled. She made a decision as a child never to speak, and, highly intelligent, she communicates through writing only. She harbours a deep resentment towards her sister and lives in her own world of mirrors and bitterness, having no illusions about her father’s arrogant stupidity. Ruth May, the youngest at 5, demonstrates how Nathan’s version of Christianity confuses and damages those it comes into contact with. Her childish notions of sin and Jesus are touching, and her ability to connect with and understand the young playmates she finds in the village are testament to how true relationships are formed through emphasising the similarities between people rather than attempting to stamp out the differences. Orleanna slowly loses her sanity as the novel progresses, and as Nathan’s behaviour becomes more and more extreme, and the precarious political situation threatens the safety of her and her children, Orleanna rediscovers the daring personality she thought Nathan had destroyed and she becomes determined to thwart his authority.
This is such a dense and action packed novel, filled with so much historical and political and cultural information to ponder on, that it is virtually impossible to provide a succint summary. The main thrust of the novel happens when the political situation in the Congo crumbles and independence is declared, and all of the white missionaries and settlers are advised to leave, but Nathan refuses to allow his family to go to safety. They stay on in their isolated village, but all around them, danger is threatening, and it will eventually be up to the women to take their lives in their own hands in order to get out alive. However, Africa has left an unrelenting mark on all of them, and their experiences will dictate the paths of their futures more profoundly than they ever thought possible when they first boarded a plane from sunny Georgia to the Congo.
For the sheer bravery and ambition of this novel, Barbara Kingsolver gets my respect and admiration. Colonialisation and missionary work are incredibly fraught topics, and her no holds barred portrayal of the audacious, disgusting arrogance of western society in their treatment of the African people is inspired and passionate, perfectly illustrated by Nathan’s misunderstanding of the complexities of the local language, unknowingly using the word for the hated ‘Poisonwood’ plant when he means to refer to Jesus, and as such, rendering his ‘Gospel’ totally ineffective. Nathan is a complex character who is only ever viewed through others’ eyes, but he is a perfectly realised example of the colonist’s blind belief that his ways are the only ways to achieve an enlightened and functioning society. His wife and daughter’s understanding of the local people, and rejection of his own religious beliefs is interesting and adds a gendered complexity to the issue of colonialism; in a sense, the female Prices have been colonised by Nathan, and forced to follow a lifestyle he believes is right for them. As the Congo fights for its own freedom from Belgium, they fight for their freedom from Nathan, and ultimately neither group will be entirely successful, or free from the scars of the damage inflicted upon them by the authorities that held them captive for so long.
My only criticism is that I found the book overlong, and the final section trite. I felt the Price women, now grown old, had become nothing but mouthpieces for Kingsolver’s political views, and this weakened the impact of the novel for me. However, this aspect was certainly not in any way enough to ruin the experience of reading the novel. Profound, thought provoking, intelligent, beautifully written and incredibly atmospheric, the bleeding heart of Africa had completely consumed me by the time I put this down. Having experienced the damage wrought by colonialisation in Africa first hand, it certainly touched a chord already in my heart, and helpfully there is a wonderful bibliography for suggested further reading on the Congo at the back of the book which I know I will be utilising. The wounds inflicted by Western society on the peoples of Africa (and plenty of other countries) are shocking, painful, and heartbreaking, and though I knew all of this before, the reality of it never hit me as strongly as it has done after reading The Poisonwood Bible. This is definitely one of those books everyone should read; don’t let it pass you by.