The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bookshelves: africa, historical-fiction, in-the-news, women, literary-fiction, bible-thumpers, alternating-povs
I discovered Barbara Kingsolver when I chanced across Prodigal Summer. Other fans enthusiastically recommended The Poisonwood Bible so of course I put off reading it, because I didn’t want to be not cool by not liking it. I needn’t have worried; this novel ranks among the top 50 I’ve ever read.
Factoid: African driver ants bite so ferociously that indigenous people use them as emergency sutures, positioning them to bite on both sides of an open wound, then breaking off their bodies. Imagine having a line of stitches made of ant heads. Then imagine what a swarm of them will do to a baby or immobilized adult. I think I’d rather face down a lion, thanks.
This is the story of fire-and-brimstone preacher Nathan Price, who drags his wife and four daughters to rescue the souls of the savages in 1959’s Belgian Congo, through the American overthrow of their democratically elected independent government and the aftermath. None of the Price family escape unscathed.
Anatole leaned forward and announced, “Our chief, Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of his village.”
Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.”
“No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.”
And in case that seems unduly harsh toward Father, be aware that he is livid because the villagers will not agree to full-immersion baptism in the river because they don’t want their children eaten by crocodiles. He takes this as a personal affront and an affront to Jesus. Zealous to the point of madness, arrogant, abusive, concerned solely with earning redemption by a God he will never admit he has let down. Viewing his wife as an appliance and his daughters as troublesome property, Nathan Price is despicable, showcasing everything loathsome about those who insist on ramming a vengeful and punitive religion down other people’s throats.
So, as with the others of Kingsolver’s books I’ve read, she has an agenda. I don’t mind it because I agree with it, but people who identify with evangelicalism or white supremacy should probably pass (although they may identify with daughter Rachel).
All of Kingsolver’s settings are characters in their own right and the Congo is no exception – living, breathing, raped and savaged by colonialism and capitalism and those who will just not let her be, but breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless. There is a feeling I get when I read about Africa, that its very earth is different, that it is somehow on a different Earth from the rest of the world, a shimmering existence in a slightly different dimension. Kingsolver captures this perfectly, telling a riveting story with prose that is poetic and elegant. A must read.
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