Sunday, 17 May 2009

African Epic

Dipping once more into the Barbara Kingsolver well, this time with her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Driven by his evangelical fervour and his wartime experiences as a soldier in another distant jungle, Nathan Price takes his wife, Orleanna, and four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, to the Belgian Congo to continue a mission abandoned by a defrocked Catholic priest. Armed with anti-malarial quinine and other benefits of the civilised western world, he sets out to bring the benighted residents of Kilanga to God. Initial failures to successfully raise their western crops become compounded by a willing incomprehension of the lives of the people around them, and the family slowly begins to slide into destitution and despair. But convinced that these are trials sent by his God to test his resolve, Price refuses to countenance abandoning the mission, even as this already precarious situation is compounded by the aftershocks of political tectonics elsewhere in the world. It is 1959, and independence for African nations is in the air, but the democracy-pushing west has interests that can't be upset by the misguided choices of the legitimate electorate. Told from the different perspectives of each of his four daughters, and by the retrospective narrative of his wife, the novel describes the tragic unwinding of Price's plans. However, his intransigence to Congolese culture and life is balanced by his daughters who, still growing up in this world, reach, by separate paths, their own accommodations with the Congo.

First of all, this is easily the best book I've read in quite some time, and certainly within the lifetime of this blog. To the degree that I'm almost afraid to describe my response to it in case I mess things up. ;-) There are a number of notable aspects that I want to ramble on about, so in no particular order ...

As mentioned above, the novel juggles - to perfection - five discrete narratives, one for each of the daughters and one for Price's wife, Orleanna. The latter is infrequent and retrospective, but its reflections tee up the main business of the novel, life in the Congo, expertly. It is made clear right from the beginning that tragedy resides within the novel's pages, but Orleanna's recollections are tantalising and also moving, as she gradually reflects on the past and on the errors that her younger self made.

More impressive are the narratives of the daughters. First of all, spread over a range of ages, they have both different takes on their situation, and very distinct voices. The youngest, Ruth May, views the Congo through child's eyes - everything about the world is newer to her, so she quickly adapts to her new environment, making playmates with local children and being open-minded to Congolese mythology. The eldest, Rachel, instead views the Congo as an unwelcome interruption to her burgeoning teenage life. While she should be focused on clothes and boys, she is instead on an African exile, one where the only eligible boys are, in her words, of the wrong "color category". The twins, Leah and Adah, are probably the most interesting of the four. Because of difficulties at her birth, Adah is partially disabled, physically and mentally, and her view of the world is shaped both by the pace at which she is forced to encounter it, and by an awareness of how others perceive her. One of her favourite activities is the construction of palindromes, and these imbue her narrative with a distinct style and a portentous commentary. Finally, Leah begins the novel as a devoted acolyte to her father's pursuit and a reluctant guardian to Adah, but gradually revises her loyalties and position as events take their toll. A tomboy, she takes up archery and, like Ruth May, begins to fit in more with the local population, at least after a fashion.

As hinted above, what's hugely enjoyable in this novel is how the girls change during their stay in the Congo. Their transformations, as they both grow in age and are forced to grow up by their situation, are completely plausible and engaging. The latter, fast-forwarding third of the novel, sees them flesh out into fully adult characters, but the hints of their past persist. The reader also finds their perception of and loyalty to the characters changing. Initially, I empathised with Rachel and her predicament, and viewed Leah as terribly naive (which, being young, she is) and overly devoted to an appalling father. But as the novel advanced, my sympathies and interests shifted until, by the end, I was most concerned about the fates of Leah and Adah.

As a sidenote, although shifting between these characters with their very different perspectives, the narrative is completely coherent. So while the story's timeline is broken up between them, there's no confusion about what's happening. In some respects, it feels almost like a conversation with four narrators who each pick up and advance the story from the last. Since the narrators touch on the same events and characters, they also give revealingly different interpretations. This approach can't have been easy to write, but Kingsolver does it brilliantly.

Before I leave character, I want to say something about how Kingsolver portrays Nathan Price. Though my plot description above presents the novel's story centralised about him, he's not a narrator and actually features only intermittently at times. But despite this, he weighs heavily on the reader's mind. At first, he appears a misguided figure, simply stubborn and overeager to fulfil his obligation to the Kilanga mission. But as time passes, his intransigence to the increasingly severe mishaps that befall his family, as well as his conception of God as an Old Testament tyrant who has sent these to test him, turn him into a hateful figure. But then, something happens. At the climax of the novel's tragedy, all of the power that he appeared to wield over his family becomes utterly dissipated, and for the rest of the novel he becomes almost pitiable, ultimately a pathetic wild-man preacher scraping an existence in the Congolese jungle. I thought that how Kingsolver did this was fantastic. She had me raging (internally, at least) about his character and the injustices he inflicted on his family, only to draw it all out of me over a relatively few pages.

Much like her earlier novels, The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, Kingsolver includes a strong element of politics here in the background history of the time. Also much like these, this novel angrily reports on the anti-democratic activities of the ostensibly democracy-pushing West, particularly the former rulers, Belgium, and the United States. I wasn't much aware of the history of the Congo beyond a general awareness of 1960s misdeeds in Africa, so the detail in the novel was all new to me. And, much as I'm sure Kingsolver intended, infuriating. Given the apolitical rural penury of life in the Congo, it's difficult to imagine why anyone thought the activities sanctioned by the West were a "Good Idea". If people in the Congo thought that their lives, already susceptible to all manner of natural calamities, couldn't be any more fragile, then they were very much mistaken. It came as no surprise that the CIA had a malevolent hand in events yet again.

I can't let Kingsolver's use of language slip by unmentioned. Much as with all of her novels that I've read (especially her later ones), the writing is simply brilliant. She's lyrical and has an excellent ear for language. She also, as a former biologist, is great on the natural world, but here gives it almost a mythical quality with its Garden-of-Eden vegetation and abundant snakes. It's difficult to know quite which is the best example to give, but I was particularly struck by Orleanna's explanation of her actions immediately following the novel's central tragedy.
As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop.

A couple of closing points. If the novel has a flaw at all, it could be seen to be in the timeline history. Everything in the first two thirds of the novel is gradually building up to a tragedy that is telegraphed in Orleanna's opening remembrance. And when this had happened, and I saw that a full third of the book still remained, I thought that this was a strange decision. But I was so engaged with the characters that I really wanted to know what happened to them next. So this perception of the structure gradually left me. As it happens, the plot's fast-forwarded unfurling of the characters' futures serves to flesh out their paths as well as that of the Congo itself. It all makes sense in the end but, raised on Shakespearean plot conventions, I did find the early (in page number terms) arrival of the shattering event surprising at first.

Quickly. The exact nature of this event is carefully hidden and nurtured by Kingsolver. She brilliantly creates a growing sense of dread as characters that you have come to care about advance towards it.

Finally, looking over Kingsolver's work, and this is the last of her novels that I have to read, this one shows a culmination of trends in her writing. The lyricism was always there, but it's especially good here. Similarly with her grasp of political injustice. But this novel excels (for me anyway) in its scope, its ambition and its emotional power. It's almost like the novel which she always meant to write, and that the earlier ones were in the lower slopes up to this peak. Certainly, in noting the gestation of this book, she implies as much in her foreword. This view also casts Prodigal Summer, hitherto my favourite of her works, in the shade, almost like it's part of the downslope. And since Kingsolver has avoided writing any further novels in the 9 years since Prodigal Summer was published, it feels like she knowingly reached a peak with The Poisonwood Bible, has said what she wanted to say, and can take things easy from now on. If this is right, I hope that she revises this view and comes back to it.

And, yes, I realise that I've used the word "brilliantly" too often above. I just have an impoverished vocabulary when it comes to words of praise.


Anne Gearhart said...

Mostly skipping your article because I've yet to read this and don't want to run my experience with your review (and a strong review from you is a strong recommendation, to be sure), but I wanted to share a story.

When this book came out, one of my friends was a seminary student what served as an intern pastor at our church. She was out somewhere, reading this, and someone asked if she was a pastor. She was a bit confused, as she wasn't wearing her collar at the time, but the person indicated it was because of the book she was reading.

Plumbago said...

That's a great story! :-) It must have flummoxed your friend at first to think that, even without her collar, her appearance totally made her as a pastor.

I've tried not to say anything that damages the book's story in my write-up, but it's still probably better to read the book first! It's a long read, but I can't recommend it highly enough.

Anyway, I'll be very interested to hear what you make of it.

Deditos said...

A great book. I've been recommending it to friends since reading it about ten years ago. Only problem is that, when asked, I could never remember what it was about, only that I enjoyed it and got a bit choked-up at the end. So, thanks for the reminder.

Also, the guy that I BX'd my copy to said it made him rediscover a lost interest in novels, which has got to be good.

Plumbago said...

I'd been putting it off for a while because it's such a long book, but Kingsolver's so reliable that I knew I'd get there in the end. And I wasn't disappointed - I think I'll be joining you in recommending it to anyone who'll listen!

All that said, having now read it, I'm now done with her novels. I've read the lot, and she seems to have stopped writing them. Prodigal Summer, her last one, was written almost 10 years ago. How inconsiderate of her!?!