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March 9, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | March 9, 2009 |

I think I developed a grudge against this book because it was the one that halted me before the finish line of the 5K. This felt very Full Metal Jacket, in that the first portion of the book is brilliant, but the second half really felt waning. Plus, I really despised most of the characters, but I think I was supposed to.

Nathan Price, a baptist minister, takes his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Belgian Congo to preach the gospel to the natives. The first half of the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of the family in adjusting to the jungle and the new culture. The narrative leaps between the daughters, each portion told from the perspective and in the voice of the particular daughter. Ruth Ann is only five, but perceptive and spirited. Leah is sort of flighty, devoted to her father, and a bit of a tomboy. Rachel, the eldest, is a self-absorbed prat, enamored with bobby soxing and ironing her hair. And then there is Adah, the wickedly clever girl, who bursts forth with acrobatic passages that twist and turn in their lyricism. She’s Leah’s twin, suffering a blight in the womb that caused half of her body to essentially stroke out and wither, so that she walks with a dragfoot limp, and chooses never to speak. Can you tell which one was my favorite? All the girls are well-defined and the switch narrative is an extremely effective way to tell the story. I felt at times though that each Price girl was plucked directly from the Barbie box of soap opera cliches: precocious youngster, doting girl who turns willful, clever genius who’s the family troll, and self-absorbed teen beauty queen.

We never get Nathan’s point of view, which is to our benefit as I don’t think we could handle it. Nathan was a painfully rigid character, insanely dogmatic in his devotion to Scripture and all the various arcana. He was almost Kurtzian in his foaming. I wished a painful and prolonged demise on him, as I do most of the pseudo-villains of literature. It’s why actors want to play villains: they get the best lines, do the coolest stuff, and with a competent pen at their backs, suffer the grimmest of comeuppances. Oleanna, the mother, only speaks around the chapters, acting as sort of an introductory voiceover to the melee of the oncoming events. I disliked her as a narrator, and preferred her as a character, watching her through the eyes of her daughters. I understand why she had to have a voice, as it was the only way we were able to forgive her partially.

The first few books of the novel deal with the Price family in the jungle of the Congo, in the small village where Nathan has been assigned to preach the good word. This part was fantastic, watching the family as the jungle changed them, as they interacted with the various natives, as they dealt with the culture of the Congolese. Again, Kingsolver does what I admire in many of the novels I read: she blends history and sociology with fiction to enrich the story.

The second portion of the novel deals with the ramifications of the horrors the family endures in the jungle and goes on to detail each girl’s life for the next 30 or 40 years. To me, this was the weakest part of the novel, and for many reasons — aside from my desperation to plow through the novel in the scant hours I had left in the 5K — I just wanted it to end. While it was interesting in some regards to discover how each of the Price daughters was warped by the Congo, and how it infused their lives from there on out, it dragged. It caromed like a seaplane trying to land in a storm, bursting through the years to flash forward like a speed freak watching the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I wish Kingsolver had chopped off the last two books, and just ended with the beautiful final passage. Otherwise, it was a fine read, and with the many recommendations, I will definitely pick up Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. But I don’t think I’ll read any of her other books. Sorry, Babs. The timing just was bad for the both of us.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | March 9, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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