Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible follows the lives of a Baptist missionary family in a small village of 1950s Congo. It is told from the various perspectives of the four daughters in the family, with short prologues to each section as later reflections from the mother. It is really quite remarkable.

As a literary scheme this way of storytelling works really well. I can't recall ever reading a novel that told one unified story with multiple voices like this. Kingsolver pulls it off beautifully. Rarely is the same scene narrated twice, and yet because of one's familiarity with the characters and awareness of how they interact one feels that one knows each of the perspectives for each part of the story without hearing each one per se. The plot moves along for the reader with all the benefit of four viewpoints, so that the story is felt four different ways. It really sinks in.

Besides this unique storytelling, what I appreciated most about the novel was that I felt I was given a real insight into another culture, another time, another place, and even another gender. The author did plenty of research and therefore went out of her way to deliver Westerners with something approaching a real experience of the other side of colonialism. This ends up being incredibly unsettling and yet appealingly enlightening at the same time.

That the main perpetrator in this case is a fundamentalist patriarchal missionary hits particularly close to home for this life-long evangelical. I cringe at his actions and attitudes because he in some sense represents my ilk, because I've known people like him, and worse yet, I sort of get him. For those evangelicals in particular and Westerners in general who have yet to consider the sins of colonialism this book may serve as a wake up call.

In presenting this kind of story Kingsolver was quite fair, but in the last third of the novel I felt she weakened the novel and its effect somewhat by turning it into an extended epilogue that got a bit preachy. I think a shorter postlude would have been more impactful. Even though this final section provided a broader picture of the ensuing politics of Congo turned Zaire in the 70s and 80s (and even an African perspective on the famous Ali/Foreman boxing match held there), the denouement was just too long. For me this was the one thing keeping the novel from being a 9 or 10 out of 10. As it is I'm giving it an 8/10. I highly recommend The Poisonwood Bible.

Incidentally, my fiction reading has taken a real shift this year since reading Life of Pi. I used to read mainly the classics (from Dostoevsky to Steinbeck) and had little time for contemporary novels. But I am beginning to love these new authors who are able to craft a story that is not only enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own right but also provides a window into other cultures, other places, other perspectives. My last few reads have taken me from Pondicherry, India (Life of Pi) to Afghanistan (Kite Runner) to Auschwitz (Night) to the Congo/Zaire (Poisonwood) and have set me on a new trajectory in my fiction reading.

So where should I go from here? For real: I'm looking for suggestions.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

thanks for the detailed review.

I started reading this a couple years ago, but I found Kingsolver's prose too, um, "poetic" for my liking and I set it down after only a couple hours. I've still got my copy though; your recommendation makes me think I should add it to my Christmas reading list and give it another go.

My suggestion is to travel next to the magical land of Saskatchewan. I recommend Guy Vanderhaeghe's 1982 short story collection 'Man Descending.' I generally am not a fan of Canadian literature, but Vanderhaeghe is spectacular. Plus, it's short stories, so it's easy to put down and pick up again with long lapses between readings, or to skip stories that don't interest you.

Tony Tanti said...

Great review Jon, bang on.

As for future reading, you should try Rushdie - Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children, Paolo Coehlo's The Alchemist, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, anything by Douglas Coupland, Alistair McLeod's No Great Mischief... There's more but those are my favorites from the last few years.

nathan davies said...

Michael Ondaajte...that's all i have to say. 'english patient' and 'in the skin of a lion' are incredible.
i have both of them if you want to borrow them.
i can't say enough about the 2 of them.

Tony Tanti said...

In the Skin of a Lion is great, nice suggestion ND

Colin Toffelmire said...

Wow Matt, you're the only other person I know who's a Guy Vanderhaeghe fan. I also heartily recommend Man Descending. This one's a little older (from the 80s) but I very strongly recommend Name of the Rose by Eco. One of my favorites.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


Have you read Ondaatje's 'The Conversations'? Incredible stuff.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Hello fellow Vanderhaeghe fan!