Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

As I said in my last review, I have not been giving myself the easiest time with my reading choices. I seem to be moving quickly from one difficult read to another, without much pause. From William Styron’s troubling masterpiece Sophie’s Choice, to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, my recent selections have hardly been uplifting. This perhaps explains my current return to Jane Austen as a recourse from tragedy and back into a world of 19th century courtship. The Poisonwood Bible lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum – easy and light in its tone, but dark in its subject matter. Taking on Western colonialism from the perspective of four American girls, Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novel is a work in which traditional perceptions of difference are challenged through the eyes of the young.

“We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters. Now you laugh, day and night, while you gnaw on my bones. But what else could we have thought? Only that it began and ended with us. What do we know, even now? Ask the children. Look at what they grew up to be. We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.”

The Poisonwood Bible relates the story of the evangelical Baptist minister Nathan Price and his family, as they embark upon a religious mission to the Belgian Congo. Set in 1959, the novel takes the reader into the world of colonial domination, entering the Congo as the country works towards independence. The Poisonwood Bible becomes an epic recounting of the family’s journey, told from the perspective of Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, and their four young daughters. As the story unfolds, the girls face the challenge of gaining acceptance within their new community, and understanding the dynamics and demands of life in the rural Congo. While the country marches towards self-government and throws off its colonial rulers, the family undergoes a parallel transformation, reconstructed by the environment in which the fate of each is ultimately determined.

“Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I’ve only found sorrow.”

The Poisonwood Bible is truly epic in its scope and represents among the best of postcolonial literature. As someone who studies the ramifications of colonialism on an almost daily basis (hello PhD in Human Rights!), I was somewhat hesitant to believe that a novel such as this could deal with the nuances of colonial rule. When one considers that this book is narrated, almost entirely, by four young girls, it is particularly easy to suppose that the complexities of the colonial mindset and the realities of conquest will be lost. But in The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver achieves a remarkable feat. She utilises the minds and voices of the Price girls as a means of highlighting the total irrationality inherent in colonial reasoning. The fear, anguish, and transformation of these girls, as they adapt from life in the USA to existence in the rural Congo, reads ridicule into the stereotypes and assumptions that characterise the colonial era.

“Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet.”

I have read a number of reviews of this book that deride it on account of the author’s perceived ‘agenda’. Leaving aside my personal view that no author writes without an underlying agenda (at the core, simply to convince the reader of the reality of the fictional world being painted), I have little time for such arguments. The Poisonwood Bible is called postcolonial literature for a reason – it was written in the era proceeding colonial occupation, reflecting upon the forces that drove empires and ravished nations. To read such a book without supposing that it might highlight the travesties of Western domination is naive. Yet, at no point did I perceive Kingsolver’s agenda to be unacceptably overt. At no point does her condemnation of colonialism appear to overtake the fictional narrative. Rather, it is executed with a subtlety that must be inherent when telling a story of the way that individuals are transformed by circumstance.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the tone of the novel is consistently light. Kingsolver differentiates the voices of the five narrators with attention and expertise. Each character is given a distinct voice, and an alternative perspective on the events of the novel. While it undoubtedly becomes clear that the author has the desire to paint colonialism and associated missionary work in a particular light, the various perspectives of the narrators ensure that the novel never reads like a lecture or an opinion piece. Only in the concluding chapters of The Posionwood Bible do the narrators begin to reflect upon their experience in the Belgian Congo. And only then is it confirmed that a transformation in thought has truly taken place.

“But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it’s a wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them…Chains rattle, rivers roll, animals startle and bolt, forests inspire and expand, babies stretch open-mouthed from the womb, new seedlings arch their necks and creep forward into the light. Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. They stake everything on that moment, posing for photographs while planting the flag, casting themselves in bronze…Even before the flagpole begins to peel and splinter, the ground underneath arches and slides forward into its own new destiny. It may bear the marks of boots on its back, but those marks become the possessions of the land.”

The Poisonwood Bible is a truly remarkable piece of fiction. The style and ease of the narrative ensure that it can be read purely for enjoyment of the author’s skill. Beyond the superficial, however, the novel is an epic account of one family’s transformation at the hands of the colonial encounter. This novel is not one of redemption, nor is it one that excuses acts of domination as ‘history’. Instead, it casts an eye over the fallacious reasoning that drove the colonial urge and points to accountability where deserved.

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