Details: (c) Barbara Kingsolver, 1999; Pub Faber and Faber 1999; ISBN 0-571-19763-9
Verdict: The Poisonwood Bible is an all-round good book, though nothing exceptional.
Reasons for reading it: Impressions from the media that it was my kind of good thing meant that I'd vaguely intended to read it since it came out.
How it came into my hands: The library
I generally found The Poisonwood Bible readable: the story and characters are engaging and the prose is well above average.
TPB describes the experience of the Congo (as a microcosm of Africa) under colonial rule; it manages to convey some of the abuses of colonialism without being excessively preachy or polemical. The people in it are just people, some inadequate and some admirable, not evil exploiting white hegemons and poor suffering natives. Likewise, a real passion for the African environment and culture comes across strongly, but the book falls short of romanticizing poverty and 'the primitive life'.
Kingsolver I think largely gets away with the rather obvious trick of alternating between several narrators. Each one of the mother and four daughters has her own particular voice and character and perspective; Rachel is somewhat of a stock Malaprop, but not too much so. And the story manages to avoid being judgemental; each character responds to the situation in her own way and the reader is left to draw their own conclusion. And the way the story is told makes it hard to be too self-righteous; the various abdications from responsibility are extremely plausible. Even the Christian fundamentalist, violent and loveless father is portrayed with enough sympathy that he's a lot more than a pantomime villain.
There are also some really lovely comic touches of the missonary message getting lost in translation and so on. I particularly liked the scene where the villagers decide to hold an election "making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village" on the grounds that "Jesus is a white man, so he will understand the law of la majorité"!
I felt that the last section of the book was largely unnecessary; it tails off after the climax of Ruth May's death and Orleanna finally finding the courage to defy her husband for nearly two hundred pages. I think a single chapter summary of where everyone ended up thirty years on would have been quite adequate.
I don't know enough about African history to judge whether the portrayal in tPB is historically accurate, and it's probably the kind of novel where it does rather matter. But as a work of fiction it conveys its world rather well. I also wish I knew whether the comments about the linguistic structure of Kikongo are accurate, because I found them fascinating!
Now I am heading to my parents' for a family funeral, namely that of my second cousin JC. He died yesterday of brain cancer caused almost certainly by the treatment he had for leukaemia as a child. He was only a few years older than me; it's one of those tragedies that are so common as to be almost banal. Anyway, I didn't know him very well, but I am quite close to his mother and younger sister, so I'm going to their funeral to try to find some sort of words that are not offensive. Back Sunday.