God doesn't need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves.
I loved Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible from somewhere near the end of the first page. I was predisposed, of course: with topics like colonial guilt and when missionaries go bad, and a strong emphasis on the distaff side, how could I possibly resist? Cue much righteous indignation of a liberal-feminist cast - had I read this as a teenager, I probably would have combusted with the heady outrage before the first section was over. Strong stuff.
But does it also stand up as a novel outside its very personal button-pressing? I believe so. At its heart and whatever its politics, The Poisonwood Bible is fundamentally a wonderful story: gripping, moving, thought-provoking, a richly-evoked world peopled with distinctive characters.
It opens in 1959, as a dysfunctional American family - preacher Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna, and their four daughters - travel to the Congo and take up residence as missionaries in a remote village. We follow the Prices through their early ignorance, their disastrous mistakes and their tragic fission - and beyond, as they cope (or don't) with the aftermath. It's page-turning storytelling of the highest order, particularly the first two-thirds or so, in which the reader's frustration at the characters' delusions mingles with a creeping sense of dread. The build towards the crisis is almost unbearably intense.
One of the many areas in which Kingsolver excels is how she structures the narrative. While Orleanna gets a mournful, defiant, hindsight-infused narration at the start of each section, the vast bulk of the story is told by the varied voices of her daughters from a much more immediate perspective (generally only months or weeks after events). Each is a distinct, sharply-realised individual, observing, analysing and reacting in her own way. Between them, they not only create suspense (in what they hide from each other, or see only incompletely) and add extra layers to our picture of each other and of the Congo, but they also reinforce the themes of the novel by the very way they speak to us: how one's preconceptions shape the way one sees the world, how past experiences impact upon (and distort) the present, and how damaging the gap between divergent worldviews can be, whether within in a single family or on the geopolitical stage. (For their tale coincides with the Congo's first, faltering steps towards independence, and all the misunderstandings and meddlings and dreadful conflict that accompany it). They also, as do all the characters, invite us to ponder what produces such divergences: what moulds a personality? What moulds a people, a nation, a state? What impact does an environment as uncompromising as the Congo have on the human beings who live in it?
Thus we hear from dim, pretty, self-centred Rachel, the eldest sister, who - despite occasional moments of real insight, and a clear-eyed view of her father in particular - provides a masterclass in only seeing what one wants to see:
I pictured hands like those digging diamonds out of the Congo dirt and got to thinking, Gee, does Marilyn Monroe even know where they come from? Just picturing her in her satin gown and a Congolese diamond digger in the same universe gave me the weebie jeebies. So I didn't think about it anymore.
Rachel's slips of the tongue/pen tend to be both amusing ("I have took for granite.") and illuminating ("I'd sworn I wouldn't go past the end of the village [with him], but it's a woman's provocative to change her mind."), although sometimes I felt Kingsolver chased the effect and the humour in a way that smacked of authorial intrusion rather than in-character narration (e.g. "We Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony.") Unless Rachel is displaying some attempt at satire - and she never seems quite self-aware enough for that - this seems a bit heavy-handed. She is best summed up in a comment made by Leah: "And Rachel, with the emotional complexity of a salt shaker."
Then there are the twins. Idealistic Leah is hopelessly devoted to her ogreish father and his sledgehammer approach to the local people, even though her natural intelligence reluctantly sees that his methods are not only not working, but are actively harmful - and even though he belittles her at almost every turn for being female. Taciturn, sarcastic Adah, crippled from birth, watches the world through cynical, bitter, secretly iconoclastic, and devastatingly clever eyes. She repeatedly refers to Nathan as "Our Father", as has little patience with his religion:
I was struck through with my own wayward brand of reverence: praise be the lord of all plagues and secret afflictions! If God had amused himself inventing the lilies of the field, he surely knocked His own socks off with the African parasites.
Finally, there is the baby of the group, adventurous Ruth May. Five years old in 1959, possessed of a willful and vindictive streak and the clearest example of four girls for the damage that can be wrought by undiluted doctrine on a young mind. At the same time, however, she is the strongest advert for syncretism, being the first to befriend the local children instead of trying to force civilisation upon them. Orleanna makes her the focus of all her half-spoken fears for her children, obsessively cataloguing the things from back home that Ruth May can no longer remember.
The book's epigraph sets the tone, suggesting a perception of Africa as a blank slate or unworked clay, a passive entity upon which the white man can - must - imprint his will, shaping its destiny for its own good. The symbolism is echoed in Orleanna's early observation about an okapi who drinks from the river near her, a creature only of interest to white men when they can be hunted and taken as trophies ("A family of them now reside in the New York Museum of Natural History, dead and stuffed, with standoffish glass eyes. And so the okapi is now by scientific account a real animal."). More explicitly, this appears in the parallels she (and others) frequently draws between the fate of women and of the land, the position of unfree Africa and unfree women vis-a-vis white male power:
I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war. Guilty or innocent, they have everything to lose. They _are_ what there is to lose. A wife is the earth itself, bearing scars.
Both Africa and women (of any colour) are expected/assumed to be yielding, accepting, existing only to be shaped to men's needs or desires. Orleanna notes that Nathan sees his daughters as essentially plots of land, to be conquered and cultivated and used. Adah remembers the one-sided battles between her parents over how to respond to the discovery of the twins' remarkable young minds:
He warned Mother not to flout God's Will by expecting too much for us. "Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes," he still loves to say, as often as possible. "It's hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes."
The paradigm goes beyond the Price women, or even 1950s white Christians: Congolese women are also shown to be systematically subjugated, even though they do much of the work and indeed quietly hold society together. The indictment is not aimed merely at white men, but rather at coercive power in general (which, granted, tends to be held by white men), at the conquering-exploiting-subjugating principle that drives its use - ultimately, at any type of authority that derives its power from taking away the freedom and voice of others.
Almost as soon as the Prince family arrives in the Congo, it is obvious to everyone except Nathan that his methods, born of the conquering impulse, are simply not going to work. Nathan enters Africa with little of the humility that he believes his God demands of his womenfolk, and his arrogant intransigence brings harm to all he touches. One example is his determination to create a garden such as he might have had in the US, growing those vegetables he is used to growing, without any thought to the vast differences in growing conditions. He has only contempt for the efforts of one of the local women to help him create something more suited to the environment (and immediately undoes her work), confident that his knowledge must be superior, since it is his:
Several days later, Father assured me that Mama Tataba hadn't meant to ruin our demonstration garden. There was such a thing as native customs, he said. We would need to patience of Job. "She's only trying to help, in her way," he said.
He assumes that, simply because he believes himself to be right, and because his reading of the Bible tells him so, that his message and his way of doing things will win through - that he need never compromise, or adapt. No damage matters, for even physical torment is merely a test of faith. Again and again, he makes this judgement for those under his power as well as for himself. (Adah is all too aware that he views her disability as something of a reward to himself, a proper test from the Almighty). His sermons centre around moving from the darkness of Africa to the light of Christianity, but the missionary work is essentially a way of storing up spiritual credit for himself; such is his disdain for the people he wants to 'save' that, amongst other things, he institutes a whole new calendar upon his arrival, so that he can have Easter sooner in accordance with his vision. When things go wrong through ignorance, he wonders why no-one gave him the information - but he never thinks to ask. There is only one worldview, and it is his. As things grow steadily worse, Rachel watches Nathan ignore his wife's pleas for the girls' safety:
Father would sooner watch us all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself.
The novel develops into a contest between the harsh, cruelly-idealistic authority of Nathan, all scripture rote-learning and out-of-proportion punishments, and the pragmatic, sensible bravery - shot through with severe suffering and fear - of Orleanna and her daughters. Of course, just like the struggle between exploitative first-world powers and fledgling Congolese independence movement, of which this is in some ways a microcosm, the dichotomy is never so straightforward. Orleanna is paralysed by her fear and the habit of obedience to her husband, each of the girls is flawed and in some way complicit, if only by their silence; Nathan, meanwhile, is revealed to be the victim of his own history, which, if never excusing his destructiveness, certainly makes him more pitiable (though it was hard to get past grim satisfaction at his every comeuppance, however small). The treatment of the Belgium/US/Congo issues might be a little too generous towards the Congolese, and a little too pointed in its assignment of blame (again, there are complicities here, and people who learn the ways of the colonial masters all too well). But there are nuances and shades of grey aplenty once - with more than a little help from meddling outside governments - the region collapses into deadly chaos.
The other important character in all this is, obviously, the Congo itself, in all its beauties and hardships. Particularly through observant Adah's point-of-view, Kingsolver conjures up the oppressive humidity, the rich colours of the woman's clothing, the ripening fruit, the smells and mud and the traps that lie within every apparently harmless manifestation of flora and fauna. Not least, the Poisonwood tree of the title, key to so much of the novel: a tree whose touch raises blisters, one that has to be known and recognised is harm is to be avoided - a tree whose name in the local language is only a tone away from the epithet Nathan uses in her sermons to signify the God he brings to the Congo (and, of course, frequently mispronounced, with unwelcome results).
Some concepts, we realise, are not so easily translated. They do not exist in a cultural vacuum, but can only be conveyed with compassion, patience, and a will to empathise, to adapt them to circumstances rather than impose them. And perhaps the process of making such an adaptation it may, at length, seem that conveying them is not so important as it once seemed.
And my husband, why, hell hath no fury like a Baptist preacher. I married a man who could never love me, probably. It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind. I remained his wife because it was one thing I was able to do each day. My daughters would say: You see, Mother, you had no life of your own.
They have no idea. One has only a life of one's own.