Books

03 January 2015

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, USA, 1998


I read this book shortly after reading Cloud Atlas (which I reviewed a few weeks ago), and, although the two books are very different, there are a couple of surprising similarities. Cloud Atlas extends across continents and centuries and The Poisonwood Bible is confined both in place and time, but both books are told from the varying perspectives of the different characters in the books. Also, while Cloud Atlas leaves us with the understanding that life and death are intrinsically woven into the same process, The Poisonwood Bible reminds us that the Congolese word muntu does not just mean man or people '... it means more than that. (...) there is no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods - these are all muntu...' And it becomes apparent that, at least on that level, both books are saying much the same thing.

I believe that the book is about how we relate to the concept of God, but it is also about Western greed and the total destruction of a society that, prior to Western invasion functioned in its own unique fashion both politically and spiritually. Unfortunately, a propensity for greed has caused Western countries to destroy many communities and even countries around the world, and the practice is still alive and well.


Seen through the eyes of five woman - the wife and four daughters of the unbalanced, fictional, Baptist missionary, Nathan Price - the Congo takes on five different perspectives and different meanings. I listened to a very interesting BBC interview with Barbara Kingsolver where she explained that the five women actually illustrate five different ways of relating to the responsibility remaining after the traumatic and unnecessary colonialization of Africa. As she said: the West has profited, materially, through what happened in Africa, and, even though those living today were not responsible for what happened, the responsibility remains. In their responses to the situation, Rachel represents those who manage to remain completely loyal to themselves, Leah speaks for those who accept responsibility and try to make amends, Adah is aware of the necessity of breaking the whole situation down to its smallest common denominator, while May Ruth, unlike many others, understands the spirituality of the Congo. It is, I feel, through Ruth May, that the combined themes of religion and political greed are finally connected.

Based almost completely in the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible abounds with amazing descriptions that are vibrantly visual, auditory and even olfactory. I have never been to the Congo, but Kingsolver's writing allowed me to experience its lushness, its impenetrability and even its cruelness. By the time I had finished the book, I felt that part of me had actually been there.

A fantastic book, beautifully written and researched. Photo of Barbara Kingsolver from www.theguardian.com

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