THE POISONWOOD BIBLE
Ah, Africa. Africa, Africa, Africa. Having re-viewed Binyavanga Wainana’s How to Write About Africa (which I have tried linking to, but cannot make it work–sorry!), I’m somewhat more satisfied that The Poisonwood Bible at least doesn’t commit the most egregious of authorial crimes against the continent. And being aware that the book was written more than 15 years ago, for a white American audience, I should perhaps try to be more forgiving. Nonetheless, this novel seriously rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it, because it had been recommended me so many times by people whose opinions I trust. I felt certain I would love it. What a bitter betrayal.
So. What exactly was it I disliked about Barbara Kingsolver’s widely lauded and still popular bestseller? Better start with what I liked. For balance, y’see. Um. Well. Kingsolver has attempted to create a new image of Africa, and more specifically the Congo, beyond the stereotype of malnourished, mournful-eyed people and cruel, inept dictatorships. Oh, there is malnutrition, and there are cruel, inept dictatorships, but Kingsolver is sadly revolutionary* in pinning the blame for all that not on Africans themselves but on colonialism… and on geography.
Kingsolver has a lot of conviction for the story she is telling. She has a lot of belief in the originality of her concept. The true ‘villain’ of the novel is Reverend Price, the white American missionary, husband and father to the five narrators, who intends to impose his will on the land and people** of the Congo. He has little regard for whether he is needed, let alone wanted, in the village of Kilanga where he sets up house. His chief crimes are western arrogance and dogmatism. That, at least, has the potential to be interesting and new.
The character voices are also distinct and entertaining. There are five narrators at the start of the novel–Orleanna Price, wife of the reverend and mother to the four Price daughters, the teenage Leah, Adah, Rachel and six-year-old Ruth May. Unfortunately, problems arise in these various voices from the very earnestness with which Kingsolver has set forth. This book takes itself far too seriously. It wants to seize you by the throat and scream in your ear how very important it is. The narrators’ voices all contain the same sense of wry humour and weary self-importance. Even the narration by six-year-old Ruth May muses on death and sickness. The frequent, often black comedy of this book is funny but is overwhelmed by its knowing pretention. The text drowns in its own poetry and artistic wit, especially Orleanna’s opening to each part of the novel. Orleanna bemoans the fate of Africa and the fate of her daughters, in particular baiting readers with the early news that one of those daughters doesn’t make it out of the Congo.
And there was an annoyingly predictable plot event. It should shock no one that the character death was that of little Ruth May. When first hinted at in the story I hoped it might be one of the other daughters who bit it***. Rather than being moved by the child’s sudden death I was irritated. Ruth May did not exist as a person in her own universe; she was present only to pull audience heart-strings. It felt lazy and cynical. Africa, dear reader, won’t just harm Africans. As a particularly mind-boggling passage claims, the continent “cleanses itself” of humanity, including white six-year-olds, by afflicting them with disease and predation. Africans****, this seems to suggest, are victims of geography as much as colonialism. Thus as much as Kingsolver attempts to say something new, this narrative is the same old staid victimisation of the populace of an entire continent.
Perhaps the thing that frustrated me most about this book, though, was that for all the warbling about the evils of colonialism and the Price family’s complicity in the destruction of the Congo, not one of the narrators even glancingly acknowledged either of these two things:
- As white Americans, they are all descendants of colonists–even colonists themselves–already, and were complicit, even if passively, in crimes against the First Nations. It makes sense that at the outset that none of the characters, brought up in 1940s Georgia, give this any thought–but even toward the end, in the 1990s, none of the characters remaining in America brings it up. It might be a bit radical to expect a book published for a white audience in 1998 to examine white privilege, but the colonisation of America is never even mentioned, and this is disappointing.
- As white Americans, the Prices themselves benefited from the colonisation of Africa, the enslavement of black Africans, and the segregation in their home state of Georgia that is only touched upon as a joke. I can understand the characters might not realise this until they arrive in Africa, but only Orleanna appears to have reached that conclusion by the end. She does at least proceed upon her return to America to volunteer with Civil Rights groups.
This book is beloved by many, and perhaps that’s why my dislike was so intense. I found the characters and the concept interesting. The Poisonwood Bible could have been a great book, if it weren’t for its diabolical levels of pretentiousness, irritating narration and frankly annoying plot developments. That’s… that’s most of the book. Whoops.
* To a given value. Of course people wrote of the evils of colonialism and of US Cold War politics in undermining political and economic development in many African countries. Kingsolver was merely the first to bring the news in a popular form to the white middle class.
** With regards the people, there are certainly elements of How to Write About Africa present. The people of Kilanga are apparently only recognisable by their clothes and occasionally their hairstyles. The more I think about that, the more dire it seems.
*** Sorry if that seems a cold expression to use. Unfortunately I hit the point about halfway through where I stopped caring about what happened to any of these people. Why did I keep reading? Mystery of the ages.
**** All of them. Africa is a country, remember?