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A Wonderful, Beautiful Book

By Teabelly | Books | June 2, 2010 |

By Teabelly | Books | June 2, 2010 |

Barbara Kingsolver is easily one of my favourite authors, and I think this book is the best of those of hers I have read. You can see the amount of time and research that went into writing this, and the love she has for her characters. They are all so well defined, each with their own recognisable voice. Even if the chapters weren’t headed by name, it would be easy to tell who was speaking.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family who, led by the father Nathan Price, a Baptist preacher, go to the Belgian Congo in 1959 to work as missionaries. The story is told by his wife Orelanna, whose recollections begin most of the sections, before his four daughters tell their version of events. Rachel is the oldest, with long white hair and a princess attitude. She is spoiled and selfish and very unaware of what is going on around her. She does not intend to be changed by Africa. Then there’s Leah and Adah, twins who are alike but not. Due to a complication in the womb Leah grew strong while feeding off Adah, a guilt she has to carry even though it was not her fault. Adah is twisted of body, shrunken slightly with a limp. She moves slowly and does not speak much. Her sections are punctuated with palindromes, as she reads and writes backwards and forwards. She is cynical and dismissive, used to watching and not taking part.

Leah is the most devout of the sisters, and desperate for their father’s approval. She knows his views of women and what they can accomplish, but she wants to prove him wrong. She wants to dazzle him with her knowledge, though later comes to realize his faults and turns her back on him. Her slow awakening to the man Nathan really is is one of the many gems of the book. And finally, there is Ruth May, five years old at the beginning of the book, willful and unafraid, she storms into the Congo, making friends with the children, climbing trees, picking up the language. She is funny and brave.

The books follows the family as they try to bring their way of life, and their religion, to the village of Kilanga. They come carrying all the wrong things - seeds that cannot grow in the jungle, packages of birthday cake mix that will never become cakes, and a religion that puzzles and scares the villagers. Words have many meaning there, depending on how you say them. When Nathan talks about baptism, he is also saying ‘to terrify.’ To say ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala’ may mean ‘Jesus is poisonwood’, or he is divine. The villagers are also afraid of baptism as they don’t go into the river; too many of their children have been killed by crocodiles. Nathan refuses to bend to Africa, believing his faith in god will see him through, and that this is all part of being tested. And so they carry on, learning about the land, trying to make their way through what they think will be only a year there, until tragedy strikes and the family falls apart. The later sections deal with the aftermath, and how the girls put their lives back together, some in Africa, some in America, but all forever changed.

I have read this book maybe three or four times, though it’s one I let years go by before picking up again. I think I take something new away from it every time. This time it was Africa that touched me, and the meddling of others that enraged me, as well as Nathan’s unwillingness to ever see anything from someone else’s point of view. I also couldn’t stand the way he treated his wife and daughters. They have to follow him in everything, from their home in America, to a strange and hostile land, and he always looks down on them, mostly because they are women and therefore not worth much. We never get his point of view, which I think is a good thing. I don’t think we’d be able to stomach his thoughts. They are bad enough when narrated by one of the girls.

Adah was my favourite of the girls on my first read, and she is still my favourite now, (with Ruth May a close second) with her backward talking and humour. She may feel sorry for herself, that she is not initially the chosen child, but I think she gets over that, and spends time trying to come to terms with herself. Orleanna is a very interesting character too. I think I initially disliked her, because she spends so much of her time in Nathan’s shadow, so passive, just going along with whatever he says. It is not until the tragic event that she snaps out of it and begins to move, to do what she should have done long ago, namely, leave her husband and take her daughters to safety. But I had a lot of sympathy for her this time around. I think maybe she makes a lot of excuses for her behaviour, but that doesn’t mean those excuses aren’t valid.

There’s a lot of politics within the novel also, and a lot of history. It is interesting to learn, and puts everything in context, as well as making the book work on many different levels. You can focus on the family and their plight, or you can look at them within the larger picture. I have to say that I don’t enjoy the later sections of the book as much as the earlier ones. I feel like it goes on just a touch too long. Yes I want to know what happens to the girls, but a lot of it, especially concerning Leah, seems unnecessary, and very slow. It feels like certain things are being hammered home, when you got it already twenty pages back. But, all in all, it is a wonderful, beautiful book, and I am sure I will come back to it many times again in the future.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Teabelly’s reviews, check out her blog.