Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Shoutout to one of our secretaries at work, Deb, who lent this to me. I do so enjoy reading books that are among other people’s favourites. Even when I don’t enjoy them as much, or when I dislike them outright, it’s nice to try things recommended by friends. Fortunately, I did enjoy The Poisonwood Bible. Barbara Kingsolver’s thoughtful story of a missionary family in Belgian Congo on the cusp of its independence combines an interesting narrative structure with meaningful commentary on imperialism and zealotry. It’s a book that is compassionate in multiple ways without failing to critique the shallowness or inappropriateness of some views.
Nathan Price is a Baptist minister and uproots his family—his wife Orleanna and their four daughters—from Bethlehem, Georgia to Kilanga, a village in the Belgian Congo. It’s 1959, just before Independence. But the Prices don’t know that, of course, just like they don’t know what to expect when they arrive. As Nathan labours in vain to convert his flock to Christianity and accept baptism, each of the Price women struggles with their own issues. Overall, the Price family learns that, just because they are white people, they cannot bend Congo to their will. As the book accelerates its timeline and flies through the decades to see the Price daughters grow up and diverge, Kingsolver explores how the rampant interference by the United States and other up-and-coming Western powers meant that Congo, like so many African nations, never had a chance.
The Price women narrate different chapters of the book. Orleanna Price, the mother, tends to narrate prologues to each part of the novel from a perspective well after the main events. The daughters’ chapters have a similar epistolary feel, with very lengthy and dense paragraphs and a dearth of dialogue, but the perspective feels closer to the events that they describe, as if they were writing in their diaries then and there. Kingsolver adds another layer of literary complexity to the narrative by making each daughter’s voice extremely distinct. Rachel, the eldest, uses (or misuses) colloquialisms and expressions, as would be consistent with her inattention to writing skills; twins Leah and Adah, on the other hand, have deeper vocabularies but their own distinct personalities. Leah is introspective but quite religious, at least at first, whereas Adah, because of her disabilities, revels in the written word as if it were a playground, her only real form of self-expression. The youngest, Ruth May, often misuses words or phrases, communicating more complicated concepts in ways that her young mind has comprehended them.
In this way Kingsolver demonstrates a great deal of finesse when it comes to her literary style, of course. I feel a little sorry for the copyeditors who had to read through the chapters, especially Rachel’s, and walk the line between spotting real mistakes versus deliberate ones! To be honest, the style of this book is one of its greatest joys and also greatest headaches—this book took me about a week to read, despite being under 600 pages. It’s just very dense. Consider yourself duly warned!
On the other hand, the diversity of perspectives is what brings this story alive. In some ways, The Poisonwood Bible reminds me of Fall On Your Knees. Although that story had a more distant omniscient narrator, it follows the various daughters in similar ways, exposing the reader to different experiences and situations. Although all of the Price daughters are living in Kilanga with their family, the ways in which they absorb and grow from these experiences are mediated by their existing personality traits.
It’s fascinating to watch the slow-motion trainwreck of the Price family as it comes to a reckoning with the implacable nature of the African jungle. Kingsolver’s story of colonialist hubris begins and ends with the sin of pride. The Prices arrive in Kilanga believing they can civilize not only its inhabitants but nature itself, as we see at the beginning with Nathan’s ill-fated gardening. Although the trajectory of their mission is predictable, Kingsolver nevertheless introduces fascinating thoughts for us to ponder. In particular, pay close attention to the conversations between Leah and Anatole, as he explains why he interprets for Nathan despite not quite agreeing with Nathan’s philosophy or approach.
Nathan, notably, is not a narrator—yet I wouldn’t say his voice is absent. After all, his voice is literally law within the Price family, at least at the time of their arrival. We hear from him the most, as each daughter transcribes his words, whether she agrees or disagrees. Nathan is never absent from the narrative even if his thoughts don’t actually reach the page. This seems to be a choice by Kingsolver to mirror the experience of abuse victims: even though we are listening to their thoughts, the abuser is always in evidence because he dominates so much of their world. There is sympathy among the Price women for their fallible father, sure. Kingsolver portrays him with a certain amount of pathetic nature, for he was so certain in his mission that he doesn’t stop to consider that perhaps he is not the one who is supposed to convert everyone in Kilanga. Again, pride. Ultimately, though, Nathan is not the one we’re asked to mourn here.
Rather, Kingsolver has us consider how these few years utterly alter the course of these four girls’ lives. And this is where the book gets the most interesting, to me. After the Price women leave Kilanga and disperse, the narrative accelerates and we see them grow up. Rachel retains her vapid viewpoints, grafting a Southern sentimentality about race relations onto a mercenary attitude towards love. Leah, having fallen in love with Anatole, adapts as best she can to a country that will never truly accept her because of her skin colour. Adah starts to talk and experiences other physical improvements but is driven to study tropical diseases. Ruth May, of course, gets sacrificed on the altar of plot.
Ultimately, Kingsolver meditates upon the futility of white saviourism. By and large I’ve been trying to prioritize own-voices postcolonial fiction—there’s definitely something uncomfortable about a white person writing about an African setting, for sure. But I love how Kingsolver explores these topics in a way that reifies and celebrates the complexity of Congolese tribal societies. She does this on the small scale, through characters like Tata Ndu, whom the Prices at first believe to be a stereotype of a primitive village chief, only to eventually learn that he is much more adept at diplomacy and administering his village than they wanted to recognize. She does this on the large scale, with characters like Anatole and Leah observing how the Congolese adapt to the various regime changes they must endure. And even as Kingsolver affirms that neither Christianity nor capitalism are the solutions to Africa’s woes, she reminds us who is responsible—that is, nations like Belgium, France, the UK, and the US, nations that invaded an entire continent and arbitrarily parceled it into countries even as they enslaved its peoples.
The Poisonwood Bible is a thoughtful and very rich experience. I’m not a huge fan of the narration and style, to be honest—the book definitely dragged for me at points. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it. It has me thinking about colonialism in some new ways … I tend to focus more on postcolonial India, and more recently, on present-day colonial North America, and sometimes I overlook the mid-twentieth-century race to independence for African nations. I should check out more books on this subject.