Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, ISBN 978-0-06-017540-5

In this risky but resoundingly successful novel, Kingsolver leaves the Southwest, the setting of most of her work (The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams) and follows an evangelical Baptist minister's family to the Congo in the late 1950s, entwining their fate with that of the country during three turbulent decades. Nathan Price's determination to convert the natives of the Congo to Christianity is, we gradually discover, both foolhardy and dangerous, unsanctioned by the church administration and doomed from the start by Nathan's self-righteousness.

Fanatic and sanctimonious, Nathan is a domestic monster, too, a physically and emotionally abusive, misogynistic husband and father. He refuses to understand how his obsession with river baptism affronts the traditions of the villagers of Kalinga, and his stubborn concept of religious rectitude brings misery and destruction to all. Cleverly, Kingsolver never brings us inside Nathan's head but instead unfolds the tragic story of the Price family through the alternating points of view of Orleanna Price and her four daughters.

Cast with her young children into primitive conditions but trained to be obedient to her husband, Orleanna is powerless to mitigate their situation. Meanwhile, each of the four Price daughters reveals herself through first-person narration, and their rich and clearly differentiated self-portraits are small triumphs. Rachel, the eldest, is a self-absorbed teenager who will never outgrow her selfish view of the world or her tendency to commit hilarious malapropisms. Twins Leah and Adah are gifted intellectually but are physically and emotionally separated by Adah's birth injury, which has rendered her hemiplagic. Leah adores her father; Adah, who does not speak, is a shrewd observer of his monumental ego. The musings of five- year-old Ruth May reflect a child's humorous misunderstanding of the exotic world to which she has been transported.

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Writes John Mullan/
Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is remarkable not just for its story but also for its narrative form. It has five narrators. Orleanna Price and her four daughters accompany her husband Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, to the Congo in 1959. The Price daughters and their mother narrate in contrapuntal alternation. By turns they describe their lives in a remote Congolese village and the fortunes of Nathan's mission to convert the Congolese.

Nathan himself never speaks to us, though his sermonising voice echoes through the novel. He is excluded because he resists all sympathy – he refuses to admit to doubt or weakness. "Our father speaks for all of us," observes Adah, and so the voices of his family are a kind of descant to his mission.

Telling a story in a sequence of monologues by different characters is a surprisingly old novelistic technique. It was pioneered in the 19th century by Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone, a crime mystery in which different characters spoke in turn as if giving evidence in a trial.

In the early 20th century it was associated with some of the pioneers of modernism – Virginia Woolf in The Waves or William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying. The Poisonwood Bible carries memories of Faulkner: the family comes originally from Mississippi, like Faulkner's, and their locutions have a Southern twang ("I was sore at father all right … But it was plain to see he was put out, too, something fierce").

Kingsolver does not, however, attempt so closely to follow the patterns of everyday speech. The voices of her characters are as much written as spoken. The convention has evolved to allow us to imagine narrative voices as expressions of different characters' thoughts.

Orleanna is given the benefit of hindsight. Back in Georgia after the years in Africa, she recalls events; her daughters' voices, however, seem to be describing experiences as they unfold. Three of the four sisters are teenagers when they arrive in Africa and Kingsolver has described how she read reams of magazines from the late 1950s and 60s in order to fabricate the idiom for American girls of the period.

Rachel is the eldest, and the most obstinately American, "heavy hearted in my soul for the flush commodes" she has left behind. Entirely resentful of the new world into which she is plunged, her truculence is expressed via a high school demotic. "I always wanted to be the belle of the ball, but, jeepers, is this ever the wrong ball".

Yet her scorn for her father's grim idealism allows for a mocking perceptiveness. "We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn't look to me like we're in charge of a thing". She speaks with a prissiness that produces frequent malapropisms, as when, in order to fend off the amorous local chief, she entertains the advances of a roguish South African pilot. "I'm willing to be a philanderist for peace, but a lady can only go so far where perspiration odor is concerned."

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Writes Michiko Kakutani/
Although "The Poisonwood Bible" takes place in the former Belgian Congo and begins in 1959 and ends in the 1990s, Barbara Kingsolver's powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption, and the "dark necessity" of history.

The novel's central character, a fiery evangelical missionary named Nathan Price, is part Roger Chillingworth, the coldhearted, judgmental villain of Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," and part Ahab, Melville's monomaniacal captain who risks his own life and the lives of those closest to him in pursuit of his obsessive vision.

On the surface, certainly, "Poisonwood" might seem to have little in common with Ms. Kingsolver's earlier work ("The Bean Trees," "Pigs in Heaven," "Animal Dreams," "Homeland and Other Stories"), fiction set for the most part in the American South and Southwest and dealing, most memorably, with the plight of single mothers trying to sort out their lives.

These previous works, however, also grappled with social injustice, with the intersection of public events with private concerns and the competing claims of community and individual will -- some of the very themes that animate the saga of Nathan Price and his family and their journey into the heart of darkness.

Narrated in alternating chapters by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, "The Poisonwood Bible" begins with the arrival of the Price family in the remote Congolese village of Kilanga -- a tiny cluster of mud houses devoid of all the ordinary amenities of life back home in "the easy land of ice cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We like Ike." Here, there are plagues of killer ants, hordes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and unseen parasites, and lions and tarantulas and snakes -- a fearsome world of nature whose perils are magnified by political and racial tensions.

Moving fluently from one point of view to another, Ms. Kingsolver does a nimble job of delineating the Price girls' responses to Africa and their father's decision to uproot them. At 15, Rachel, the whiny would-be beauty queen who "cares for naught but appearances," can think only of what she misses: the five-day deodorant pads she forgot to bring, flush toilets, machine-washed clothes and other things, as she says with her willful gift for malapropism, that she has taken "for granite."

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