Well, I finished The Poisonwood Bible (1998) with a couple of hours to spare before book group… and, having worked out what I think about it, I am ready to write my review. It’s quite difficult to formulate my thoughts on this novel, because these thoughts do not all lean in the same direction. Reviews feel like they should be unified, and that’s rather tricky when I have both positive and negative responses to a book. So… bear with me. I’ll bear with you bearing with me. Hopefully by the end of the page we’ll understand one another, no?
Rachel is the eldest, a white-blonde ingenue whose Malapropisms (‘never the train shall meet’) and simple, unimaginative nature are initially endearing, but eventually rather concerning. She never loses the all-American slang expressions she brings with her to Congo, and I rather liked her indefatigable sassiness, even if it is accompanied with a lack of cultural awareness.
Leah and Adah are twins – Leah desperately seeks the approval of her father, and carries with her the guilt that, in the womb, she ’caused’ Adah’s disability. Adah limps badly, and almost never speaks. She also has a fascination with seeing things backgrounds, and especially palindromes. Silent to others, her narration reveals her cynicism and bitterness, but also her humour.
Ruth May, finally, is the youngest – and the simplest. Not in terms of intelligence, but in the simple, contented way she adapts to her surroundings, making friends amongst the neighbours, and doing her best to understand her father’s teaching in their new environment.
For Kingsolver is not subtle about the clash of cultures. Here, the welcome party for the Prices is interrupted by Nathan:
Which makes it all the more frustrating that, in Nathan Price, she has done nothing of the kind. The women of The Poisonwood Bible are drawn so well, so cleverly. And, in the midst of them all, is Nathan. He never comes alive, he is scarcely more than a Bad Man Who Does Bad Things. His motivations aren’t addressed, he has no depth whatsoever – it is a shambolic waste of an opportunity. I don’t think it’s simply my Christianity (and the fact that I know a lovely, hard-working, deeply loving missionary in D.R. Congo) that makes me feel this – others at book group certainly agreed. Nathan is angry, selfish, insensitive, violent… it was when he started hitting his children that my eyes rolled so much that I felt a little dizzy. Doubtless there are other novels where one meets ogres – Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter, for example, or any novel by Dickens – but in those books they are in the midst of the surreal and exaggerated. Nathan Price is not, and, though all his attributes are individually believable, as a composite, without any redeeming features, they are not. It is such a pity that Kingsolver allowed herself this laziness. Had she made Nathan a character, rather than a two-dimensional face of Wicked Colonialism, The Poisonwood Bible would have been more interesting. Then again, perhaps she just wanted Nathan as a catalyst to explore the reactions of the female characters? That’s the most charitable conclusion I can draw.
As I said before, very little happens. We see the daughters try to adjust to their situation – their interactions with neighbours, who are variously kind or antagonistic and endlessly curious – and the gradually altering politics of Congo. Pages and pages go by without anything particularly occurring, but they are somehow engaging. Ruth May introduces ‘Mother May I’ to local infants; Rachel’s hair is a spectacle to all; Adah is presumed eaten by a lion (but is not); Leah grows more and more interested in the teacher Anatole… mostly Kingsolver attempts the miracle of winding a narrative through emotions and thoughts without hanging them on events – and she succeeds. It is beautiful writing. It is also nigh-on impossible to review. There is one odd thing… usually I jot down resonant or stand-out quotations whilst I read, or excerpts I think will help structure a blog post. For The Poisonwood Bible, I wrote down nothing. Kingsolver’s writing is all even and constant – it all weaves into one.
But, as I noted at the top, something very weird happens. The Prices’ time in the Congo comes to an abrupt, tragic end. And then, p.427, they leave. After that it is as though it were another novel. We follow the various daughters at occasional intervals for another couple of decades. It is tedious and politically heavy-handed. The points Kingsolver had previously shown through her story are now told through dialogue. Show, don’t tell, Barb. All the unsubtlety in her portrayal of Nathan sweeps across the others. I still can’t believe that a novel can peter out quite like this one did.
So, there you are. A confusing review, I daresay, but also a confusing read. At its best, The Poisonwood Bible is phenomenally good. Barbara Kingsolver is obviously an exceptionally talented writer. The Bean Trees, which I read years ago, is also testament to this. But at its best, The Poisonwood Bible is lazy, clumsy, unsubtle and poorly edited. Overall I will say that Kingsolver’s talents outweigh her occasional mismanagement of them, but it is always a shame when a novel could have been great (and, to be fair, a lot of people do consider it great) but, to my mind, failed to reach its potential.