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.