The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver
I enjoyed this book much more than I had expected to. It’s the story of a quartet of sisters who are uprooted from their life in Georgia to live in a small village in the Congo with their Baptist missionary father. The story is told in alternating chapters – each “book” of the Bible begins with a chapter told by the mother, then the sisters take turns telling the story.

Kingsolver is pretty adept at writing convincingly as one sister or another – the oldest, at the beginning of the book, is Rachel, a particularly self-absorbed teenager; in the middle are the twins, Adah and Leah; and the youngest is Ruth May, a mere toddler at the outset.
I have always liked stories told in different voices – in this case, not only do you learn different things from different sisters, but you begin to appreciate how different languages express philosophy through meaning, and how intonation (and implicitly intention) change what we say, what we mean, and what we hear – the title comes from the idea that the father’s mispronounced Congolese word changes Christ from a saviour to a poisonous bush.
On the other hand, the voices don’t seem to ring true all the way through: the 50-year-old Rachel uses the same vocabulary as the 15-year-old; while “man-o-man” seems convincing in the mouth of a teenage girl in the 1950s, it is less so in the mouth of a menopausal woman in the 1980s. There should be a natural progression. Meanwhile Adah, whose palindromes and word play are so fascinating, loses her facility with words as she grows up. This is meant to be indicative of healing, but it feels inadequate.
The story takes place against the backdrop of political independence – the Congo becomes Zaire over the course of the novel – and Kingsolver manages to make parallels without being overtly political or militant. On the other hand, there is a definite bias; the tone of the book is that of deep shame for the American foreign policy (perhaps part of the appeal for me 😉 The book deals with various issues that have ramifications at every level, from the household to the United Nations. The most obvious of these is the idea of paternalism – the sisters have to learn to live with their father, and learn to see and then accept his fallibility; the Congolese have to realize that their nation is being governed by an absentee father figure, and that their welfare is of no real concern to him.
Naturally, given the title and the premise, religion is a factor – but it is a factor in the sense that the characters must make their peace with their paternalistic God in the same way they come to terms with the actual father.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and definitely recommend it. It did make me cry a couple of times, and smile, and kept me up later than it should have a couple of nights.