Sunday, March 11, 2012

ReView of 'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver

Historical Fiction - 542pgs
Perennial Modern Classics (first published 2005)

This story is much too broad and all-encompassing to run down the details of the plot.  Instead, I have decided to bring you the description from the back of the book so that you may have a summary of some kind.

"The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.  They carry with them everything they believe they will need from  home, but soon find that all of it - from garden seeds to Scripture is calamitously transformed on African soil.  What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstructin over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.  The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime ministers, the CIA coup to install its replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of it's autonomy.  Taking its place alongside the classic workds of postcolonial literature, this ambitiuos novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers."

  This is not just a piece of fiction, it is also a piece of ethnographic and anthropological values.  It sets the mood and spirit of Africa so chillingly, almost to the point of frequent goosepumps as you read it.  I have never been to Africa, but I felt as though I traveled to the Congo by reading this book.  It is so alive, so real, and so humane.  It brings into focus some topics the Western world more or less omits to discuss or even entertain.  The most prominent, of course, being the theme of the American presence in Africa whether through the egocentric idealism of spreading Christianity, or whether it is through the domination of cobalt and diamond mines.  But The Poisonwood Bible is much more than a political premise.  It is the story of the lives of the individuals who come face to face with a foreign culture and community, how they fare in the face of something unlike their own, and best of all how their lives change so unexpectedly in the midst of a foreign environment.

In this book we encounter characters with a high magnitude of complexity.  It is written in such a fashion that we see the story unfold from multiple perspectives, individual chapters dedicated to the voices of the mother and the four daughters.  Each character telling their story from their own eyes, own prejudices, own morals and ideals, own biases.  All this contrasts the view of Nathan Price, who is rigid in his ways and mission.  The mother has a somewhat conflicted relation to her husband: "And my husband, why, hell hath no fury like a Baptist preacher.  I married a man who could never love me, probably.  It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind.  I remained his wife because it was one thing I was able to do each day.  My daughters would say: You see, Mother, you had no life of your own. They have no idea.  One has one a life of one's own." Each of the four daughters have different personalities and opinions on how they feel about arriving to Africa, and in fact, their stories is the bulk of the book that undergoes the most chances from beginning to end.  I, honestly, don't even know where to begin with the four daughters as characters and in terms of their final outcomes.  This book is incredibly depthful.  Most of it, I haven't even begun to absorb. Maybe it is for the better that I do not begin to unravel their paths through the book, I might give you more spoilers than impression of the book.

This book is filled with wisdoms.  The novel as a whole is like a warm blanket that will envelop you. You will feel part of a bigger world.  Yet, at the same time, you will have realized how much you have encountered and been opened to.  I will leave you with some of The Poisonwood Bible quotes, to decide for yourself what I mean.  This book speaks the universal language of the human spirit, in a world that we (not all of us, and maybe not most of us, I hope) have forgotten about, Africa.

"I know I'm not alone in this world.  Our society has made it seem like we must fit into a standard in order to be 'humans' or 'beings' and if we can't mold into that there something wrong with us - like speaking properly, speaking your mind, - that is the norm - if  you don't have somethign to say, and if you can't say it like you think it - you are a nobody... but there something to be said about 'silence' and about realizing that we are not perfect at all times we, will faulter in the way we think and speak"

"Before marriage, before religion, before everything.  Mornings in the Congo were so steamy you couldn't see a thing but a cloud come to earth, so you might as well be anywhere."

"Most of the girls my age, or even younger, have babies. They appear way too young to be married, till you look in their eyes. Then you'll see it. Their eyes look happy and sad at the same time, but unexcited by anything, shifting easily off to the side as if they've already seen most of what there is.  Married eyes. "

"I wondered if Anatole would consider me a sufficient messenger.  I'd noticed Congolese men didn't treat even their own wives and daughters as if they were very sensible or important.  Though as far as i could see the wives and daughters did just about all the work."

"But sometims life doesn't give you all that many chances at being good.  Not here, anyway.  Even Father learned that the hard way.  He came on strong, thinking he'd save the children, and what does he do but lose his own?"

"The way I see Africa is you don't have to like it but you sure have to admit it's out there.  You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet."

Barbara Kingsolver is a genius of her own caliber.  I will read this book over and over in the course of my life, I believe.  It is that powerful and memorable.  I want to come back to it in the future and see what else I gain from it.  It is a source of wealth and meaningful riches.







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