Book Review — The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

I will probably realise this generalisation to be false not long after making it, but for now it’s helping me begin a review of a book which is difficult to reduce, so here we go – there are two kinds of epic contemporary fiction. The first sets out to tell a single story and tells it from beginning to end; life may go on but a story has been told. The second sets out to tell lives rather than stories, and embraces the fact that there is no end; life’s going on and you’ll just have to make do with what you have been given of these ones.

Camped in the former are books like The Secret History or American Pastoral, single point of view books; in the latter are books like Freedom or Lovers’ Knots, with multiple guiding characters.

The Poisonwood Bible is mostly in the latter camp, but it is also something more because its five protagonists are each written in first person monologues. Opening in the 1950s, it begins as the story of five women beholden to a man, Nathan Price, a pigheaded, unpleasant, evangelical Catholic preacher, who in his determination to redeem himself for cowardice drags his family across the world from Georgia, USA to the Congo to set up a Christian mission in a remote village named Kilanga.

Price’s unrelentingly ignorant efforts at conversion (and cultivation) aside, things take a turn when the country begins its passage to independence under Patrice Lumumba. All missionaries (and lifelines for missionaries) are withdrawn, which convinces Price, a man incapable of admitting fault, let alone taking a “backwards step,” that the godly thing to do is stay behind in Kilanga, with no resources, to continue condescending to the locals and his wife and daughters. (Yes, he’s that unsympathetic.) But as much as Nathan Price is a pivot for The Poisonwood Bible, he is very little more, and therefore not the story at all. Easily one of the best things about The Poisonwood Bible is that men never speak; they are spoken about.

“He was merely trying, that sigh suggested, to drag us all toward enlightenment through the marrow of our own poor female bones.” – Adah

Orleanna Price and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, are the reason anyone talks about or loves The Poisonwood Bible, and it’s easy to see why. Tracking their stories through the 1950s and into more than one subsequent decade, we get to watch this family rent apart and forged together in too many ways to count.

The effort required to sustain an authentic voice confounds me, and here Kingsolver has created not one but five, and with them told more gripping, heart-rending and culturally and historically confounding stories than one book has any right to contain. At times it feels like her characters’ uniquenesses may even have confounded Kingsolver, her ambition is so disparate, but I’ll come back to that. Because first you find yourself transfixed by the characters forming in front of you, and the world forming around them.

“It didn’t occur to me to leave Nathan on account of unhappiness, any more than Tata Mwanza would have left his disfigured wife, though a more able woman might have grown more manioc and kept more of his children alive. Nathan was something that happened to us, as devastating in its way as the burning roof that fell on the family Mwanza; with our fate scarred by hell and brimstone we still had to track our course.” – Orleanna

Rachel, the eldest, is dumb, prissy and fearful. Leah, one of two twins, is strong-willed, big-hearted and idealistic. Adah, Leah’s twin who was crippled in utero, is idiosyncratic, self-aware and self-taught. Ruth May, the youngest by several years, is ornery, wilful and charismatic. Above them all, barely present, Orleanna is elemental, ethereal and silent, like the too-smooth surface of a body of water eating itself in unseen currents. And around them are two influences that shape them all: Africa, and Nathan Price.

What makes this book so compelling is almost everything about it. Once you know the women’s voices, you see their place in the Price family, the web of contradictions they each avoid and exploit, and the future stretching away inevitably ahead of them. Once you see the family, you see Kilanga and its inhabitants through their divergent eyes. And once you know the village and its people, you see their place in Congo and Africa.

Beyond Africa lies the west, the Cold War, and every paternalistic condescension (most of which still ring true) that has hindered even rudimentary understanding of different cultural norms with their own rationales and benefits. And that’s to say nothing of the actual story – who hunts, learns, falls in love, dies, marries – which is remarkable.

But what you come back to is the voices: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Leah, the family heart, first made in her father’s image and his star pupil, becomes the most wilful, independent and idealistic of the lot. Adah, the family mind, whose voice is defined by its peculiarity, such as her obsession with palindromes and wordplay, is the most violently rebellious and yet also the quietest. Ruth May, the family courage, warms your heart, unselfconsciously bridging gaps between the Price family’s world and Kilanga in the way only certain children can.

If there is a fault, it’s that Kingsolver struggles to love a character she does not like, to devote to them the same care, and that’s where Rachel comes in. Rachel is an idiot and a racist, and it never feels as though Kingsolver cares to understand why someone might become that way. Rachel’s constant, boorish misuse of English notwithstanding (and when an author writes an illiterate person into their book that’s a pretty potent statement of contempt), her fear and trauma is never really explained beyond her feeling that life would be better if she had a rich husband and moved in higher social circles. She is insipid and ignorant to the point of predictability, and never in a way that makes an empathetic reading of her behaviour evident in the author’s pen.

This, however, is more than made up for, and can be taken on board in the first place, because there are four other leading narrating characters. There’s a sadness and rich colour that flows through this entire book – “All human odes are essentially one,” says Adah. “‘My life: what I stole from history, and how I live with it.'” – that surges truth and beauty. That one person in so much “world” has been deprived of that finest of nuances that contemporary epics demand is hardly significant.

Very few people will need to be told to read this book almost twenty years after it was released, but here’s another straw on that camel’s back, for what it’s worth.

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