The Republic of the Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated on January 17th 1961, 40 years ago today.
The Poisonwood Bible
First published in: 1998
This edition: Faber and Faber, 2007
Genre: drama, fiction
Cover photograph: Marc Schlossman / Panos
Cover design: Faber and Faber
If you read a lot of books, surely there has been a time when you'd read one in particular, and almost have a feeling of regret. Not because you're reading that book. Not because you think it's a waste of time. But because you have wasted your time on other books. Because you didn't read this one sooner. My regret-book is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. My regret-book, I wish I'd read it prior to January 2011.
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is an ambitious (and successful) family saga set in the Belgian Congo, starting in 1959 and spanning across three decades. Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist, uproots his Georgian family and sojourns to a small village, Kilanga, with the intention of spreading the word of God and baptizing every single African in his vicinity. Wholly unprepared for a life in Africa, Nathan is setting himself and his family up for disaster.
His wife Orleanna and daughters (Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth May) all of whom narrate the story of their family's tragic destruction, each find themselves affected differently by their experiences in the Congo.
The moment I started reading this impressively sized novel, I figured it would take me some time to finish. It took two weeks. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is darkly beautiful, the descriptions of the Congo and its people and creatures so mesmerizing, the frangipani flowers so tempting, "Mbote!"… there is much to take in. It took time, but I wanted it to. I savored this. The women in this book helped me to savor this. Kingsolver's girls, women, are so distinct. She has created their individual portraits vividly and brilliantly, with just the slightest touch of gentle wit.
Mysterious Orleanna, wife to a tidal wave of a man, full of regret and grief, a silent passionate and heartbroken voice begging for forgiveness.
Rachel, telling herself not to take things "for granite". Her malapropisms, at first endearing and later on simply hilarious, are unfortunate and apt – it distracts somewhat from her vanity, but only somewhat.
Ruth May, the little one, a force of her own: the adventurous toddler, playful and innocent.
Adah, Ada, crooked Ada, palindromes filling her silent world, Adah, Ada, left… behind. The hemiplegic half of the twins, Adah is the quiet one but also the one who screams the loudest on the inside, who rebels most against her father and his self-righteousness. ("Evil deed live.")
And then there's Leah, the other twin, at first the one who most admires her father and seeks his approval, later on the most admirable and brave daughter – the one who truly finds her own path.
I love them all for holding their own, in Africa, headed by an intolerant and abusive man. A self-proclaimed man of God, "a just man", who will use violence and terror as a hypocritical means to demand respect. Respect cannot be demanded. It needs to be earned. Nathan instead earns disrespect.
It was difficult reading about a man like Nathan. I despised him and in turn admired the women and girls all the more for it. It is what kept me reading: a solidarity as one who feels religion is a matter of free will; solidarity as another woman, or better yet, a human being.
This is one of the book's strengths, and you don't have to be female to feel this powerfully about Orleanna and her daughters.
I sometimes do wonder about Nathan. His exact motives. I get why Kingsolver opted for female narrators only; THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is not a feminist book but it does celebrate women and their independence. The wife and daughters cut themselves loose from Nathan page by page; it makes sense not to have him narrate. This story is not his, but his daughters'. Nonetheless, he is an interesting character who just gets lost in there. Perhaps I needed more than "he was in the war" to understand how this guy ticks. But again – I recognize and accept that this one is about the women.
What does interest me is how Nathan is painted to be a villain for keeping his family (his children) in the Congo (and the reader judges him for it), yet when the same thing happens with another family in this book, it seems to be acceptable. Nathan's fundamentalist motivations are questionable, naturally, whereas the other family's intentions are based on solidarity with the Congo – but the possible consequences and dangers to the children are equal.
But I think that is Kingsolver's point exactly – Nathan was there for all the wrong reasons. I do respect that a lot of people involved in missions only want the best for Africa. My uncle-in-law, a monk, has spent decades in Ghana and continues to work there to help the region build up their own economy.
But not everyone goes on a mission for noble and honest reasons. Nathan completely ignores the fact that the people of the former Belgian Congo have – over the course of centuries – built up and honored their own customs, faith, rituals. Nathan proceeds to disregard their fears of having their children baptized in his precious (alligator-ridden) river.
Believe and let believe, is what I feel.
So much to feel because of this book. How terribly sad THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is at times. Despite the dark atmosphere and the foreshadowing, despite Orleanna's laments… some events in the book still were like a punch in the gut for me. I really couldn't keep it dry and will admit to getting choked up when I finished the book. "Perfect", I whispered to myself when I closed this book, and I sat there wondering how on earth I would describe my thoughts about this amazing novel. I have so many thoughts.
Much of this is due to the obvious political / social commentary nature of this novel, which is mostly present in the last third of the book, a strong section during which the women have gone their separate ways, the years flying by.
Kingsolver's work is fiction, but the background events are based on true events. The murder of an independent Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, on January 17th 1961 (…40 years ago today), is an important theme in the book. The rumored involvement of Belgium and the CIA is not ignored and gives THE POISONWOOD BIBLE an edge.
Kingsolver, having spent some time in the Congo herself during her youth, is disgusted by many American and Belgian acts against Africa (and more); she doesn't hide which side she's on. And I don't think she should have to.
I don't know enough about the Congo and its history to know whether everything Kingsolver has written is completely true to history. I also do not know enough about evangelical baptism and do not know what is correct or not. (Some errors were probably made.)
But I know passion, I recognize it here, and that is what I respond to when I read a book such as THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. A book about the Congo, set in the late fifties and early sixties… of course it's going to be political. It should be. You cannot write a book about this subject specifically and deliver it with deadpan, empty prose. It wouldn't work; in fact, it would ring even more untrue to write a book about Africa and to skip over all of her troubles. You do not candy coat the Congo and what has been done to it.
You need heart for a book this ambitious, and Kingsolver's heart overflows. The reader needs to feel this story. The reader needs to feel Africa.
And I felt her.
– Skilled narration; five distinct and strong female voices tell the story
– Very ambitious, and successful
– The author is noticably passionate and opinionated about the subject (of both fanaticism and Africa); story not a meaningless shell
– I've savored all 614 pages of this book.
– May be considered to be TOO political by and for some, though I personally appreciated this.