Barbara Kingsolver,
The Poisonwood Bible
(HarperCollins, 1998)

Barbara Kingsolver takes a handful of unique voices and weaves them into a stunning tapestry in The Poisonwood Bible.

Nathan Price is a man with a mission, specifically that of bringing the gospel to the heathens of Africa. To that end, he brings his wife and four daughters to a mission in the Belgian Conto in the summer of 1959. He is confident that he can bend first the mission village, then the Congo, then perhaps all of Africa to his will. He is in for a surprise.

The Congo is on the brink of change, and the Price family bears witness to it as it unfolds. The struggle for independence from Belgium and the political machinations from Western countries to maintain some form of control becomes the backdrop against which the family struggles to survive.

The novel is narrated in turns by Nathan's wife, Orleanna Price, and the four daughters, all of whom have distinctly different personalities. Orleanna, wife and mother, seems to be submissive, although it is soon evident that she has an iron core and remarkable resilience. Rachel, the eldest, is almost 16 upon arrival in Africa; she is self-absorbed and given to making telling malapropisms. Leah and Adah are twins, age 14, and Leah is determined to be a steadfast supporter of her father's plan. As she grows accustomed to the rhythm of life in the new country, however, she finds herself in doubt, and in the end, that determination is what pushes her in another direction.

Adah suffers from hemiplegia, damage to one of the hemispheres of her brain. Walking is difficult as one side of her body does not work well, and she is electively mute. Adah is the one who has lost her faith, and she is given to playing with palindromes and words in her entries. Her observations of her family's dynamics are pointedly astute.

At 5, youngest daughter Ruth May is intrigued and excited by her surroundings; she is the one who adapts best to her new home.

The novel spans three decades in which Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May are all transformed by their experiences, and each remains bound to Africa in some way. Only Nathan Price struggles to remain the same.

It seems appropriate that Nathan does not tell his own story; the others draw a chilling portrait of a man wearing the blinders of his stubborn need to cling to his established identity and resist transformation. So sure is he of the invulnerability granted by his identity that just as he ignores warnings not to touch the sap of the poisonwood tree and is rewarded with a bad skin reaction, he ignores the nuances of the Kikongo language and stirringly pronounces "Jesus is poisonwood!" -- hardly appealing in the evangelical sense.

Kingsolver's compelling narrative is remarkably subtle in its complexity. Events both great and small, political and personal, interweave into a rich and multi-layered whole. She brings alive the sights, sounds, smells and textures of Africa, and the reader becomes utterly absorbed. The Poisonwood Bible is definitely one of those novels you owe it to yourself to read.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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