Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a brilliant writer, both gripping and thought-provoking. Nevertheless, I have had this on the shelves for ages because I never seemed to be in the mood to start a very long book set in the Belgian Congo in the fifties.

But with Kingsolver you are hooked from the opening line: We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.

This is the story, told by the wife and four daughters of the appalling, bible-thumping, Baptist Nathan Price, of the family’s Mission to Africa. First, it is the tale of one family’s adventure into “the heart of darkness’, its dysfunction and ultimate destruction. As a family saga alone, the book is utterly satisfying.

But of course, as always with Kingsolver who tackles wide, moral themes through her stories, it is more than that. Set just before and after Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo, is assassinated, it is also the story of the Congo - whose troubles continue to make the headlines today.

And it is about America, cultural imperialism and, as Kingsolver says in her introduction, exploring the “great shifting terrain between righteousness and what’s right”.

Nathan is, above all, a man of certitude. He is observed by his family and his would-be converts. “Tata Jesus is bangala!” he shouts during his sermons, unwilling to listen to the fact that in Kikongo meaning hangs on intonation: bangala may mean “precious and beloved” but it when spoken in a flat; foreign accent also means the poisonwood tree, a dangerous local plant.

Later, having absorbed the American message that democracy is good, the inhabitants of Kilanga vote, in church, on whether Jesus should be their personal God. Jesus loses.
Kingsolver says she waited thirty years for wisdom and maturity to dare to write this book. It is warm, funny and haunting.

Miranda Ingram
© published in the Rendezvous magazine, December 2008

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