This would be the third Barbara Kingsolver book I toted back to Massachusetts from my parents’ house in New York; unlike The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, I had only read The Poisonwood Bible once. The story is quite dense, and, to be truthful, the hardcover is really heavy. Though its weight isn’t the reason why, until recently, I’ve only given the novel a single read. The heart of the matter is that The Poisonwood Bible is incredibly dissimilar from any short story, essay or novel authored by Kingsolver that I’ve ever read, and at first, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. This time around, I remain uncertain, but I will say this: Kingsolver’s facility as a writer is irrefutable.
The Poisonwood Bible is about the missionary Nathan Price, who turns his Southern-bred wife and daughters into expats in 1960s Africa. The novel’s narration jumps from each of the Price women to the next and back again, illustrating how the Prices — Bible-thumping Nathan, his resigned wife Orleanna, proud Rachel, idealistic Leah, her cynical twin Adah, and young Ruth May — all have difficulty adapting to life in the small Congolese village of Kilanga. Nathan and Rachel have more trouble than the rest. They both refuse to adjust their American perspectives to better suit Africa; while Nathan’s expectations are frustrating, Rachel’s are flat-out funny. Here, for example, Rachel describes her conversion to a vegetarian lifestyle, after ants have devoured the entire village’s stores of food and her family has hunted for meat:
I had gotten out of my bath, dressed in clean clothes, towel-dried my hair, and was sitting quietly in the front room prepared to announce to my family that I was a vegetarian. I understood full well what this meant: from now on I would have to exist on bananas and have poor nutrition. I knew Mother would have strong opinions about where I’d wind up, with curved legs and weak bones like the poor Congolese children. But I shan’t care, not even when my hair falls out…
But this is not [what] happened. When they came home, everybody was having a conniption about a big giant fight in the village over who got whose share of their horrid meat. They went on talking and remarking about it while Mother built a fire and put in their antelope leg to roast, and mashed some plantains. It did smell so good. You could hear it all sizzling and crispy and juicy, and I have to confess when dinnertime came I did eat a few small bites, but only because I was positively weak with hunger. And I got to thinking about my hair falling out. But! If there had been a grocery store within one hundred miles, believe me, I would have walked there on my own reconnaissance for some cuisine that didn’t still have feet attached to it.
There are so many other excerpts from Rachel’s story that I would love to share, but they would without a doubt give far too much of the plot away. I can give a brief account, though, of some of my favorite Rachelisms include “dull and void” in place of “null and void,” “Cape Carniveral” for “Cape Canaveral,” and “philanderist” for “philanthropist.” So funny.
Kingsolver has always been capable of inserting humor into her writing, whether it’s via dialogue, description or otherwise. However, my biggest (and possibly only complaint) I’ve had with Kingsolver’s body of work — of what I’m familiar with, I should say — is her absolute lack of villains. Her characters, when staring down obstacles, ultimately are facing themselves. They overcome barriers of their own making. While the women of The Poisonwood Bible are tormented by their own fears and insecurities, together they have the same boulder to clamber over: Nathan Price. With the missionary, Kingsolver creates a despicable character incapable of learning from his mistakes or even acknowledging that he has made any to begin with. Of course, it can be a hoot to read about such a person, but ultimately it isn’t rewarding.
Here’s where I start feeling a bit conflicted about the novel. The writing, as ever, is superb, as well as being a tremendous departure from Taylor and Turtle Greer’s storyline. In spite of all that, I can’t say that I flat-out liked The Poisonwood Bible. While I thoroughly enjoyed Rachel’s narrative and Orleanna’s beautiful prose, ultimately I found the plot to be underwhelming — how terrible to say that, but it’s the honest truth. Lovely writing, uninteresting story. Too bad.