The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible image

 

Published 2000 by Faber and Faber [first published 1998]

 

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ is a mammoth accomplishment. In under a thousand pages, she has managed to write a moving, inspired work of fiction which explores colonialism, mission work, race and gender relations, family, tradition, leadership. It is a very rich book, with so many different elements under a single umbrella to keep any reader enthralled.

 

The book traces a Georgian family who move to a village in rural Congo to run the local mission. It is a story told in the voices of the women in the family – a style that allows us to empathise with their different reactions to this alien place, and one that displays the evolution of their characters as they experience and unmask Africa – as the dark continent, as home, as a place that gives and takes.

 

These personal recitals of their family’s story is put into stark relief as their father is unmasked for his dogma, fundamentalism, and almost selfishness in setting out to “save” the sinners of the village and the Congo at large. He is quick to tout the ‘sins of womanhood’ but it is the voices of his wife and, moreover, his daughters that resonate with the reader. It is in the African context that his wife buckles under her initially subservient nature and the will of her husband, until she stands up to him and pushes against enslavement and an environment that could potentially be enormously dangerous for her and her daughters. Their family reflects the conquest undergone by the Congolese and, unsurprisingly, when independence comes (no matter how tumultuously) these women find themselves somewhat undeterred in seeking out safety in a country where the people cannot be expected to succeed in having their shackles cut.

 

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ is a book that looks at womanhood, motherhood, childhood as universal concepts, but also in as much as it differs in Africa. It uses the family as a mirror for the Congo in particular and Africa in general as they live through their own colonialism, independence, post-independence, and even anarchy. It explores Africa’s shifting sense of identity as it becomes increasingly westernised, yet how important a role culture plays; white guilt in black Africa, the family dynamic, betrayal, complicity, conflict.

 

The story covers a lifetime, a plethora of emotions and events – it is the full spectrum of humanity in a single novel. It has scenes of tragedy, adventure, hope, disappointment, and joy.

 

I was struck by the accuracy of Barbara Kingsolver’s descriptions of Africa both in the physical and atmospheric senses. She conveys a sensitivity and understanding of the place that, as an African, I appreciate. But, more than anything, this book is crafted into a carefully-layered, haunting story which is technically brilliant – appealing to the reader on a number of fronts.

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‘The Gourmet’ quotes

I have held eternity under the skin of my words, and tomorrow I shall die - 12

A work of art has a soul. It cannot be reduced to a simple mineral existence, to the lifeless elements of which it consists. Perhaps because I know this I have never felt the least bit ashamed of considering Anna the most beautiful work of all... - 16

The real ordeal is not leaving those you love but learning to live without those who don't love you - 39

 

 

The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why. 121

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

The Gourmet

 

[First published in 2000]

 

What would you do if you knew you only had 48 hours left to live?

 

This is what faces Pierre Arthens in ‘The Gourmet.’ Rather than spending precious final hours with loved ones, Pierre Arthens is plagued by a yearning for a forgotten flavour – his life as a world-renowned food critic almost blurring the identity of this craving.

 

Monsieur Arthens’s quest to find the mystery flavour takes the reader through time and place, revealing the main character of this book to be hardly likeable, arrogant, and uncaring all as a result of his seemingly wholly Epicurean nature; more concerned with his sense of ambition than his relationship with his wife and children.

 

His reminiscences, in search of an unknown taste, give readers a glimpse into the life of this complicated man before he was famous and one cannot help but soften towards him in some respects. Perhaps his attitude is a by-product of success.

 

‘The Gourmet’ contains a multitude of perspectives, from his wife and children, to his pets – all of whom are discussing Pierre Arthens as he awaits his fate. The result is almost like looking through a cracked mirror at the same view.

 

Ultimately, however, this is a short little book that is about so much more than food. But the descriptions of food themselves are hard to ignore for their magnificence. The details of different dishes, tastes, and textures make for a book that is mouth-watering and hunger-inducing. It provides the perfect descriptions for the lavish and the simple – an act of survival as humans that we can turn into a luxury and an indulgence and, through the seemingly warped sense of duty ascribed to this protagonist in his final quest for a forgotten flavour, this is a book that takes us back to the essence of life, the question of what is important, and who we will be in our final hour.

‘The Reconstructionist’ quotes

I am faithful to houses, and this house is it for me. Like a good marriage, this domiciliary love requires exclusive attention. 29

 

... the education one gains from marriage is rarely limited to the sexual and sentimental. 78

It's a curse to be talented when what you long for is genius. 82

Leaving once, and you only ever leave once, prepares you for other departures. 84

Anyone who prefers animals to humans is telegraphing to the world a deeper despair than they know. 92

No one is more cruel than an honest lover who is not in love. It’s strange that through the centuries an invincible stratagem for capturing and unwilling heart has never been devised. 97

The curse of sex, its true torment, is not that it has the power to seduce us, but that it only has the power to seduce us. There is, alas, no pleasure or pain or mad combination of the two, which can make an unwilling man or woman stay. What is the mysterious force which makes the bond unbreakable? Perhaps it is the power of dreams. And me? I’m awake all the time.99

Sometimes we are caught in a web of femaleness, but there is also a bond that works between men. It is less powerful but it has its own grace.201

Human life is very short.

Over the years I have learned that a woman can cause havoc. A story as old as Helen of Troy or as new as Margaret Price of Tullamore Co. Offaly...
That for some, love is an alien invasion and they feel terror that it might sicken and die inside them.
That children disappoint as often as they dazzle. 
That some people have a desire to suffer. And if they don’t find suffering in one place, they’ll search for it in another.
That there seems to be more love of sex than sexual love [...]
That you don’t really know something, until you are ready to deal with its consequences. A lesson most often learned in your fifties, an underrated decade in which your character finds you out. 
That passionate commitment to a public cause often provides a smoke-screen for private sins.
That unendurable illness must in the end be endured and that what people look for when they’re dying is their past. Heaven for them is not going forward towards the light, but backwards into the reflection of lost time and love. 
That a decent lie has saved more people than we know. And saving your life has as much moral weight as a fixation on an impossible absolute – truth. Who can say that a life based on illusion is anymore fragile than one based on reality?
That to live your life is not so simple as to cross a field. 114

The Reconstructionist by Josephine Hart

The Reconstructionist image

 

[Published by Overlook Press, 2001]

 

Reading ‘Damage’ revealed that Josephine Hart has an immense talent for exploring the underbelly of our darkest psychology as humans and turning it into fiction that is both gripping and revelatory. ‘The Reconstructionist’ is no exception.

 

Jack is a psychiatrist and it is revealed early on that his relationship with his sister Kate (and, it would seem, his relationships in general) is somewhat unhealthy, although the reason for this is only uncovered as the story unfolds. It doesn’t take long to realise that what binds them is the cause for why Kate is so broken and fragile – the deep-seated underlying issues that urge the reader on in a flurry of curiosity. Stylistically, Josephine Hart has mastered the technique of laying clues for her readers; facts we can think back on as the story unfolds, as pulling past and present together.

 

As Kate is about to be re-married, we get the sense of an ending between them. What was the catalyst that turned their relationship into such an unconventional one? What made Kate so needy and Jack so bound to her as protector and guide through the darkest avenues of life?

 

The story takes something of an erratic path, with descriptions sometimes void of real detail, until the mystery starts to unravel, which it does at pace. Once I started to get my answers from ‘The Reconstructionist,’ I realised that one of the reasons this was so satisfying was because the writing and the story appealed to some of my deepest questions by virtue of living – is there futility in looking for a happy life when, perhaps, the best we can hope for is reasonableness and content? Is this the only way to carry on after life has dealt its tragedies – through reconstruction? And, if so, is this real or will grief’s sediment stay with you always?

 

It seems almost unusual that subject matter that may go against the grain of the comfortable, conventional scenarios for a lot of readers can be the source of such a personal identification – a universality in a set of circumstances from which we would naturally shy away.

 

Going back to Ireland, to his family’s home, opens the floodgates on their history  and shows that, no matter how many times you may try to reconstruct the truth during the course of a lifetime, it persists whether we choose to disguise ourselves from it or not.

Quotes from ‘Light’

He had emptied himself yet again of his story, as sinners do to their priests. 10

 

Grief is agony and then if it goes on long enough it is a consolation, for if we are in it we need look for nothing else. It is company, it is complete, it is certain.30

 

There are stories told by wanderers who return and tell what they have seen and others by those who stay at home and gather what is already known. And then there is another different kind of story in which the teller can see through the pattern of others’ movements and thoughts himself looking back at him the way a face appears in the veins of a stone or in a bank of cloud. I haven’t stories like the first two kinds because I don’t come from a single place in the world. 43

 

[…] between a man and a woman there is a moment before which everything is possible and after which everything is lost. 56

 

I know this fear – the fear of losing for ever what we do not yet and may never have. 56

 

Has anyone before tried to cure a broken heart with physics? 84

 

Even after forty years I cannot make peace with my memory of her. With her I had rapture. 117

 

I feel them moving around me, all his different possible selves. Which is the true one? The physicist Erwin Schrödinger said that a thing unobserved will propagate endless possibilities about what will become of it, but once this collection of possibilities is observed – say by a measuring device in an experiment – all the possibilities except one disappear and only one thing remains. 165

 

And so physics has moved through time, a beautiful, harmonious and nearly complete picture of all that is elaborated by one physicist undermined in turn by a troublesome discovery made by another. 176

 

Dialetics. Love. Are they illusions? Or is it that I expect of them the wrong thing? I don’t know yet. 176

 

There are more words, I think, for longing than for rapture. Or at least they are more easily found. 191

 

They found that something could be two contradictory things at once – that light, for example, could be both a particle, or a substance, and a wave, or a pattern of energy. It was whatever you wanted it to become.259

 

The more scientists looked at the world the more it disappeared. 259

 

My poor young friend. He looks for a Pole in Finland and certainty in physics. 260

 

[…] but just here and now in the twilight of this city of Copernicus I feel it all churning and boiling and dancing around me, all the billions of tiny particles, creation, then annihilation and then creation again. This world which just now I meet and feel again where nothing is lost and everything is changed. There are no things, there are only forces, processes, movement. I know this, and I get some taste of the loveliness of it. You cannot hold a single thing to you for it must break and fall away. That is its nature. 264

 

The world is bigger and harder and more wondrous than our attempts to ensnare it. 266

Light by Timothy O’Grady

light

 

[Published by Secker and Warburg 2004]

 

‘Light’ surpassed all of my expectations. I anticipated a story of love lost and friendships made, but it ended up being so much more than that, with a plot that moves and changes, yet remains based on simple ideas, which are written in an interesting and beautiful style. It is always good to discover something different.

 

‘Light’ is the story of a man in the evening of his life who stumbles upon a younger man in a pub. He stands out because he is reading a book on physics. Yet, once they start talking, the young man M. relates a story of heartbreak at the hands of a woman who disappeared and whom he is attempting to trace.

 

M. opens up immediately to a stranger. There is desperation in him, but there is also a connection between him and the narrator; the mutual understanding in the loss of a woman many years before. This chance meeting stays with the protagonist, whose sense of fraternity with the young man leads him to make his own attempts to solve the mystery of the missing woman. It also forces him to confront his memories, taking him through post-war Poland and his years as a youth.

 

There is a vicariousness to the quest – as if he, perhaps, will finally be able to relinquish the memory and hurt of Angelina (which plagues him like disease) if M. can find Hanna. At seventy, he says he still felt like he had a lot of life to live, but it seems more like he was looking for a story that would restore his faith in love.

 

‘Light’ is a reminder of life as a series of chain reactions, that love is transformative, and that it has the potential to feed on lovers until nothing remains. The course of our lives and our very identities have the potential to be defined by a loved one’s presence or absence.

 

What is the relation between physics and love? The narrator, in his loneliness and old age, examines M.’s situation, together with his memories, as if performing some kind of scientific investigation, examination, experiment. On one hand, there is a certainty attached to the scientific – a formula that makes determination of a conclusion easy – on the other, love and physics may have something in common; that our answers may change depending on the questions we ask in the beginning and that, like everything else in the world, love is not immune from creation, alteration, annihilation.