Writing a book is not as easy as an accomplished writer makes it out to be. Months of research, sometimes years, combined with an eye for detail and a knack for personalizing stories in lucid language certainly form the foundations of good writing. This is what I was thinking as I flipped the last page of Barbara Kingsolver’s multifaceted novel “The Poisonwood Bible.” Set in the Congo of the 1960s, the story is about Nathan Price, a Southern American white preacher, and his family coming to the African nation to spread the word of God. They arrive at a time of political turmoil when Congo is on the verge of being independent of Belgium. And, of course, at a time when Congo continued to be perceived as the heart of darkness. The novel is, therefore, a rich mélange of cultural, political, religious and personal stories, told from the differing viewpoints of the four Price daughters, and occasionally their mother Orleanna Price.
I found the trials and tribulations of daily life in the Congo the most interesting. Even more so because the children report most of the goings-on, and consequently everything is laced with slight amusement or just WYSIWYG honesty.
Rachel, the oldest of the children, embodies the zeitgeist of the Western world to the hilt in her love for luxurious comforts and distaste of the rustic life they lead. She is averse to everything Congolese and represents the typical, colonial white woman. “We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of anything, not even our own selves.” We can see her vanity and self-importance when she decides on the one thing to save when the village undergoes an attack from a swarm of ants. “Not my clothes, there wasn’t time, and not the Bible-it didn’t seem worth saving at that moment, so help me God. It had to be my mirror.”
Leah, one of the twins, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Rachel. Intelligent, witty, and outspoken, Leah is the radical in the family. She soon realizes that the father she once adored is actually a tyrant driven by the obsessive need to ‘save the Congolese souls’ and bring them to light. She begins to develop her own line of thought, aided by the progressive Anatole and starts to realize the various effects of colonialization. “Over the next weeks, we heard a hundred more times about the whites killed by Simbas in Stanleyville…How many Congolese were killed by the Belgians and labor and starvation, by the special police, and now by the UN soldiers, we will never know. They’ll go uncounted. Or count for nothing, if that is possible.”
However, the most impressive character for me was Adah, Leah’s twin, who is hemiplegic from birth. But that doesn’t stop her from spinning her own cerebral takes on life. She makes deductions and understands the world through her astute observations. With her brilliant wordplay, she imbues scorn and sarcasm for most socially accepted things, particularly religion. “The Reverend towered over the rickety altar, his fiery crew cut bristling like a woodpecker’s cockade. When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge. The “Amen enema,” as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend.”
Some of the things she says stand true till today. Like the difference in the choices that face the rich compared to the poor.
“When I go with them to the grocery, they are boggled and frightened and secretly scornful, I think. Of course, they are…
‘What is that, Aunt Adah? And that?” their Pascal asks in his wide-eyed way, pointing through the aisles: a pink jar of cream for removing hair, a can of fragrance to spray on the carpet, stacks of lidded containers the same size as the jars we throw away each day.
‘They’re things a person doesn’t really need.’
‘But, Aunt Adah, how can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need?’
I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to the quiet fire of an empty stomach lining? There is nothing about the United States I can really explain to a child of another world.”
Lastly, there is Orleanna Price. Her once vivacious and beautiful self has been quashed over years of living with the dour and repressive preacher, and we see a resigned, melancholic, and numbed woman when Orleanna speaks. Over time, she has “become lodged in the heart of darkness, so thoroughly bent to the shape of marriage, I could hardly see any other way to stand.” It takes an untimely death and the ensuing shock to jolt her out of her ennui, and flee from Nathan Price. The preacher himself does not speak in the novel but we know his bent of mind from the other voices.
Kingsolver and her family lived for a couple of years in the Congo, and also went back for research visits while she wrote. This is evident in the authenticity that rings through in the descriptions of life in the Congo. I giggled over the sassy attitude of some of the Congolese women, the way the villagers would bring them game every other day, and how their whiteness and blondeness held the village, especially the children, in awe. Although alternatively easy and difficult to read, with the latter being more often the case, The Poisonwood Bible is undeniably a book that prompts you to think on multiple fronts. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and featured in numerous award and top 10 lists, it still remains a classic read on issues that plague our world even day.
Verdict: A classic read that goes in with the list of books you should read at least once
A version of this review also appears in PureM.
*Image Credit: Journal Women Writers