Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

Some novels are so vivid that certain scenes haunt you long after you've finished the story. The Poisonwood Bible is one such novel. To tell the story of the Price family - American missionaries who move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in 1959 - Barbara Kingsolver writes each chapter from the perspective of one of the Price women. The result is a striking and layered story about the Congo's struggle out of colonization and a family's struggle for survival under the misogynistic rule of Nathan Price (husband and father) in a country they don't understand.

What is perhaps more remarkable about the novel is that Kingsolver was able to so fully embody each of the five women (mother Orleanna, Rachel, twins Leah and Adah and Ruth May, the youngest) that none of their perspectives ever seem out of character or in any way incongruent with something they may have said before. They all have difference perspectives on the Congo and what their father is doing there, and they bring their own personalities into their narratives. It's almost shocking that the family is entirely fictional, because for Kingsolver to have so fully realized so many characters seems like an exhausting amount of work.

Rachel is the oldest of the Price children. She is attractive and blonde and determined to stay that way despite living in the rural (and fictional) Congolese village of Kilanga. I think the scene I most clearly remember that featured Rachel was one in which there was a mass panic in the village and everyone mobbed together and ran for their lives. So, taking the advice of a magazine she had read, Rachel stuck out her elbows and lifted her feet, allowing the mob to pull her along with minimal effort on her part. It seems like an character-defining moment, but none of Kingsolver's characters are that one-dimensional.

Leah is essentially the antithesis of Rachel. Despite knowing little about the Congo before she arrives, she becomes fascinated by the country and its people. As the story builds, it is Leah who finds a place in Kilanga (a feat not to be discounted, her father is hated by the villagers ho have little interest in his fire and brimstone preaching) and within the Congolese culture. She becomes deeply involved in the Congo's move from colony to independent country and eventually marries Anatole Ngemba, a Congolese man and teacher. When her mother and sisters flee from the Congo during its move to independence, she remains behind.

Leah's twin Adah is quiet. She was born with a physical deformity and although she quite brilliant, she is shy and unassuming. Adah loves words and is an excellent observer. When the other characters get involved in their own lives, relating lots of character details but few linear plot-points, it is usually Adah who chimes in with an explanation of the event her siblings are fuming over. But she is more than a filler characters, and if anything is the most betrayed by her father's treatment of both the villagers and his own family. Unlike Leah, Adah trusted her father's Baptist drive to convert, so his subsequent violence and madness hits her hardest of all.

Ruth May is the youngest by quite a few years and her perspective is appropriately childish. But sometimes children make the most skilled observers because they notice things (or think to mention things) that others overlook. It is through Ruth May that Kingsolver is able to tackle the basic day-to-day difficulties of living as an under-informed expatriate. Ruth May decides to stop taking her quinine (anti-malarial drugs) because it tastes bad. The results are catastrophic, but do lead to Orleanna taking things into her own hands and finally leaving her tyrant of a husband to get her children out of the country before they all end up dead.

Orleanna we hear from less than the others. She opens each section of the book, but then fades a bit. Most of what we know about her comes from her children's observations (such as how her noisy treatment of the plates after a meal indicate that she has sided against her husband in some argument). For a while she plays the stoic wife who stands by her man. But as he devolves she becomes stronger, and it is her effort at keeping her family alive and protected that outshine any earlier missteps by the end of the book.

In many ways, The Poisonwood Bible is a scathing criticism of the evangelical missionary work that was inherent in colonization. Kingsolver's portrayal of the Congo emerging from colonization in many ways anticipates what happened to the country after Belgium gave it up, and because the Price family's saga in many ways paralleled that of the country they were transplanted to, that look to the future is pretty ominous.

What really makes this book for me, though, are the characters. I find it unbelievable that they aren't real people and the way Kingsolver moved between them, gathering multiple perspectives on events and moving the plot along is quite stunning. As is her understanding of family. The Prices are not a family I would ever wish to join, but they do move and breathe as a unit in different parts of the novel and the way the daughters reference similar memories without the details feeling forced speaks greatly to Kingsolvers understanding of how to build not only striking individuals, but also believable units.

The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
First published in 1998 by HarperCollins (cover image shown from HarperPerennial edition)

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