My friend H went to work with an international development agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year. She sends back some stunning photographs and long emails about her experiences of the land, the people, and her work. It all looks so idyllic, beautifully lush green and her work is exciting and will give this area many a self-sustainable aspect in another 2 years. In today’s world, international development is quite well equipped to understand what aid a war or famine stricken country needs without intruding violently into a territory or its culture.
This has not always been the case.
The Poisonwood Bible (Book 16) is a book I was intrigued by when it appeared on a book club list in 2000. It got left behind from my reading list because it was unaffordable then and it soon slipped out of my mind and from a 'most wanted now' onto a 'forgotten till you prompt me' list.
Till now. A month ago I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf and couldn’t resist borrowing it.
"We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle”
This first sentence and accurately sets the tone for The Poisonwood Bible. Like nail on the head accurate.
Nathan Price, zealous Baptist preacher from Georgia, U.S.A, has dragged his family to the Congo to spread the Word and convert a small village (and then all of the Congo) to Christianity. The book is narrated alternately by his wife and four daughters and each tells of the surprises, joys, horrors, friends, foes and weather they find in their new home amidst the political upheaval the Congo is undergoing. Orleana is Nathan’s wife and has unquestioningly followed her husband on this mission in spite of the danger that this trip is fraught with. Rachel is the oldest child, a beauty queen daughter, whose precious hand held mirror and vanity reflect on the basic rustic living that they are subject to. Leah, of the aforementioned cake line, is one of twin girls and the child most willing to embrace, adapt and accept the situation. Her twin is Adah, born the weaker one, who walks with a limp, reads upside down and refuses to talk unless absolutely essential. Ruth May is the baby, five years old and full of bright eyed innocence she charms the village children and finds ways to adapt her American games to life in the Congo.
The girls/ women are completely unprepared for the trip to Africa and by Rachel’s birthday that Betty Crocker cake mix is rock solid from the humidity. Their year in the Congo is told through the chapters with each telling the experience from a different perspective – from Rachel who hates it all can’t wait to go back to ‘Civilisation’ to Leah who forms a bond with the land and its people. Things are falling apart right from the start and each chapter tells of the increasing political instability and Nathan's persistent bullying of his family and apathy to the village sentiment. His fiery beliefs leave little room for compromise and chapter after chapter bear testament to his increasing fanaticism and its effects on his family.
About halfway through the novel a death wreaks havoc breaking up the family in different ways. The family disperses and from then on the novel moves with yet greater speed covering a span of 30 years and the different lives each family member carves out.
Kingsolver is a compelling writer and her portrait of the Congo is robust and ambitious and expansive all with beautiful detailing. She has delicately woven the historic and quite tragic fight of the Congolese to gain independence from the Belgians by introducing characters both native and foreign into the story. Each character’s strengths, weaknesses and inherent flaws come to light in the backdrop of a nation in turmoil.
One of the things I found interesting was that Nathan Price has no voice in the book, no defense for his actions. The entire narration is done by the girls/ women and in my reading I found myself thinking that just one chapter by Nathan would put a different light on things, spun things around a bit more. But I am no writer or critique so I shall just keep that thought on the backbench and give my heartiest recommendation to this book.
It is an extremely interesting book and even those with only a small interest in history will greatly enjoy this read. It is meaty and full and direct and will make your heart ache for the pain inflicted on Africa.