Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible is a mixed bag of extremes: It’s one of the most authentic works of historical fiction I’ve come across, evoking a time, place, and culture with precise details while also serving to educate the reader without ever feeling didactic. It also draws its plot from diverse works of classical literature, notably King Lear, yet doesn’t feel the least bit derivative. However, the novel rests on the backs of four female characters who are so thinly drawn that you’d have to put them all together to get a complete, well-rounded woman.
The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher who, in 1959, drags his family on a dangerous mission to spend a year preaching the Gospel in a remote village in what was then known as the Belgian Congo but was also on the brink of an implosion that still echoes today, two names and four national leaders later. Nathan never speaks directly to the reader, however, as the book is narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and his four daughters – superficial Rachel; daddy’s girl Leah; Leah’s twin sister Adah, mute and slightly disabled by hemiplagia yet highly intelligent; and the innocent and much-younger Ruth May. Nathan is an ordeal in and of himself, one increased exponentially by their move to the heart of Africa, to conditions for which they are wholly unprepared. Nathan is as one-dimensional as the women in his family, stubborn, misogynistic, driven by the shame of a wartime injury that has left him shell-shocked yet with the veneer of functional behavior. Like Lear, Nathan loses his daughters one by one through his increasingly erratic and foolhardy behavior, eventually losing his wife, the last one to truly abandon him emotionally, when his choices provoke tragedy with no recourse.
Kingsolver spent a year in the Republic of Congo around 1962, after independence and the bulk of the events depicted in this book, but her knowledge of the country, its terrain, and its culture suffuses The Poisonwood Bible as thoroughly as if it were a country spawned entirely by her own imagination. The natives of the small village to which the Prices move are given respectful treatment, neither denigrated as noble savages nor elevated as wise shamen, just shown as regular people surviving in a difficult environment and demonstrating a degree of empathy that is somewhat foreign to our get-off-my-lawn culture today. The Prices’ inability to adjust to local agriculture, and Nathan’s refusal to accept or even solicit help from local women who farm with more success, is a harbinger for the ultimate failure of their entire mission, and a metaphor for the failure of Western attempts to graft our culture, religion, and even our economic philosophies on to a country that is, itself, a Western-created fiction.
Those one-dimensional characters ended up detracting greatly from the book for me, especially through the last third or so as the daughters’ ability to narrate long stretches of the story increases with their age. The kindest interpretation I can conceive is that Kingsolver intended for each of the female characters to represent a specific aspect of womanhood – maternity, beauty, intellect, fidelity, innocence – yet even if this is true, the format limits the potential for any of these women to grow over the course of the novel, especially the children as they become adults. Leah and Adah mature the most, with Leah shifting her deep allegiance from her father to her eventual husband while Adah, forced by a cataclysmic emotional trauma, must overcome both that and her physical handicap. Yet none of the women spoke with a compelling voice, not even the rhyming, backwards-talking, poetry-quoting Adah, who was interesting but whose extreme rationality came with a coldness that kept me at arm’s length. Rachel never quite grows up all the way, still displaying the same peculiar combination of a lack of self-awarness and an obsession with appearances that makes her earlier narration so hard to read.
If you read primarily for plot and enjoy historical fiction, however, Poisonwood sings in both departments. Kingsolver offers tiny bits of foreshadowing without making the book’s handful of plot twists too obvious, and as the book nears its conclusion its pace quickens to avoid reader fatigue. While Kingsolver’s prose is undeniably American, her ability to paint a picture of life in central/sub-Saharan Africa fits in with writers like Achebe, wa Thiong’o, and Adichie who spent much of their lives in the region. It isn’t a pleasant feeling for those of us who grew up and live in comfort and blissful ignorance here, but there’s merit in a reminder that these conditions existed just 50 years ago – and still exist in many parts of the world today.
Next up: Back in August of 2011, I spent much of a game in Lake Elsinore chatting with two readers, one of whom recommended King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I finally picked up the book the other day at Tempe’s Changing Hands bookstore, figuring this was the ideal time to read it, and through 100 pages it’s quite compelling.