26 May 2015

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1998. A Baptist minister, Nathan Price, relocates his family from the state of Georgia in the USA to work as a missionary in the remote village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, in the late nineteen fifties, early nineteen sixties. Nathan is a man very sure of himself and his faith. We witness—largely through the eyes of his four daughters and occasionally his wife—his total failure to relate to the people of the village in which the family now lives, and the gradual disintegration of the family as it deals with a number of calamities, whether they be natural, personal, social or political. The title derives from the ambiguity—or perhaps complexity and subtlety—of the Kikongo language. Nathan finishes each sermon with these words: ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala.’ He wants this to mean: ‘The Lord Jesus is precious and dear.’ However, the way he pronounces the word ‘Bangala’ it means: ‘The Lord Jesus is the poisonwood tree.’ ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends’ says Adah his daughter during her narration, ‘for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’

The story is told largely as a first person narrative through the eyes of the daughters: Ruth May, the youngest, who is five at the start of the novel; Leah and Adah, twins, who are fourteen; and Rachel, who is fifteen. Sometimes the narrator is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna.

I know nothing about life in a Congolese village in the middle of the last century, but I could not help feeling that we were not being presented with a ‘real life’ story here. Rather this was a vision of the world shifted slightly out of phase into a reality in which the natural laws to which we are accustomed do not always apply. To that extent the novel has a magical realist flavour. Certainly this is also due to the fact that this world is seen through very young eyes. To younger eyes, perhaps Kingsolver is telling us, the world is a less comprehensible, more magical, more mythological place.

The youngest daughter, Ruth, is playful, curious and adventurous. She is the one most able to adapt to this new world into which she is thrown. She is less fully formed and therefore more malleable. She has a less rational approach to reality and is more accepting of the strange, the unusual, the different. She is able to communicate with the other children in the village, when necessary at a non-verbal level. Leah, one of the twins, is deeply devoted to her father and tries hardest to accept and understand him. She is also independent and something of a tomboy. Although in the end she departs radically from her father’s views, she retains some of the passion, conviction and even dogmatism with which he holds them. Adah is the other twin, hemiplagic from birth (only one side of her brain develops), with apparent physical disabilities and a limited ability to speak (at least at this stage of her life). She is, at the same time, brilliant in a ‘Rainman’ kind of way. She also has a very distinctive way of perceiving and dealing with the world. The oldest daughter is Rachel, self-obsessed, superficial and enraptured with American culture.

Orleanna is deferential towards her husband but gradually begins to assert her independence as the family suffers hardship and, ultimately, tragedy. Eventually her maternal instincts take over, and she is a lioness defending her cubs.

I never really felt moved by this novel, its characters or their fate. I was intrigued, fascinated and interested, but not deeply, emotionally involved. I think this has to do with the fact that I never felt that these were real, flesh and blood people. Rather, they were mythological representations of different world views or philosophies. After the family leaves the village and the characters go their separate ways, I thought this became even more the case: these were politico-socio-spiritual embodiments rather than people. This was particularly true, I thought, of the daughters. And amongst them, particularly Rachel and Leah, who represent polar opposites. I would have been quite happy for the novel to end when they left the village, and was not really satisfied with the way it developed subsequently.

There are so many themes dealt with in this novel: religion and spirituality; politics and society; colonialism and the clash of cultures; the domination and callousness of the West. What was the final message that I took from this? Perhaps that no culture can ever hope to fully comprehend another. All of this was fascinating, thought provoking and would generate excellent discussion groups. It no doubt has in the years since its publication. But for much of the time, the concrete flesh and blood of humanity was buried beneath this intellectual load. For example, was the relationship between Leah and her Congolese husband Antoine a real relationship, or was it a vehicle for exploring cultural relations and political oppression? More the latter, I think, than the former.

This novel is no doubt a masterful achievement. I thought perhaps Kingsolver dragged it out too long. It could, as I have intimated, have finished satisfactorily about three quarters of the way through, after the family leaves the village. What comes after that is less and less story and more and more philosophical, political and social commentary. There are certainly moments of beautiful prose here, and the novel is always thought provoking. Nevertheless, because it is overlong, and because I never quite made an emotional investment in the characters or their story, I give it four stars.