Get ready for a bold statement: I have just read one of the best books I have ever come across. Take a moment to think about how many books I’ve read since I learned to read and you can imagine why I’m impressed. Have you ever come across The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? She’s an American novelist, daughter of medical and public health-workers who lived and worked in the Congo at some point in her youth. She’s written more novels I know nothing about, but this book – this book is one that worms its way into your head and changes the way you think.
It’s the story of Nathan Price, a fervent and terrifying evangelical Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959. More accurately it’s the story of the women, not Nathan himself, as the narrative is taken up by his wife Orleanna and each daughter in turn: Rachel, the self-centred eldest, Leah and Adah, twins, and Ruth May, the youngest. Nathan’s narrative is, in itself, not especially important, so isn’t included. His dominance is such that the women in his family must construct their lives as a reaction to him, and make their own peace with the shattering tragedy caused by his single-minded pursuit of conversion.
It’s also a story about Africa, the long years of political turbulence in the Congo, and the effect on a people who know that, after decades of Western exploitation, ‘a Congolese life is like the useless Congolese bill, which you can pile by the fistful or the bucketful…and still not purchase a single banana’. Each woman in the Price family must reconcile herself to her experiences in the Congo, and they do so in ways that are surprising but somehow entirely satisfactory.
The individuality and richness of each character is what I love about this book. Each section of narration is so entirely in the ‘voice’ of whoever is speaking that the writing style alters completely, but seamlessly and consistently throughout the book. Spiky, caustic Adah is my favourite, and I find her story especially poignant, but Orleanna’s sections are lyrically beautiful at times. Leah’s narrative I felt tended to become Kingsolver’s soapbox, especially in the second half, when the politics rather overcomes the plot. Having said that, the picture created of the history of the Congo is vivid and disturbing, and manages to make something human and personal out of the faceless news reports. I’ve no idea whether all the claims made in the book are true – Kingsolver is so richly scathing about Western intervention in Africa that I was both shocked and sceptical – but that’s the point. Now I’m going to find out. It’s not a perfect book, but now, when the Congo comes to mind, I feel as well as think something. And I suppose the author would be quite pleased with that.