The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible is a novel much praised by critics, about a missionary family that relocates to a village in the Belgian Congo (Zaire) on the eve of independence.

The family consists of a fundamentalist preacher father who thoroughly dominates the lives of the others, a traditional housewife mother, and four daughters. Three of the daughters are teenagers—a very blonde one more concerned than the others with conventionality and a successful social life, and slightly younger twins. The twins are a little more intellectual than their older daughter, especially the handicapped one, who walks with a limp and—by choice—rarely talks. Then there is a much younger daughter who is only 4 or 5 when they leave for Africa.

The action is presented chronologically, but the perspective is constantly changing. Each chapter is written in first person as if by either the mother or one of the four daughters. Never the father—we don’t get to see him from the inside.

I don’t know why his perspective is excluded in that way, but my guess is it’s a kind of literary affirmative action. Perhaps the author’s purpose is to give voice to those of the gender that in real life—including in the historical period in which the novel takes place—are least likely to have their stories heard.

So maybe it’s a feminist reaction against the all-too-common tendency for a story to place a man at its center, and to reduce his wife and kids to auxiliary characters. Maybe it purposely slants things in the opposite direction rather than aiming for some kind of perspectival equality, again for the same reason that affirmative action programs exist.

Does the device work? I’m undecided if I prefer this narrative style to other choices the author might have made. Mostly I liked hearing from these different characters, getting their different reactions.

In other respects, though, I thought the author failed to fully pull off this style. For one thing, at times it feels gimmicky, like it’s calling more attention to the style than the substance.

I also don’t think there is enough variation among the voices. The differences among them too often are superficial. For example, the oldest daughter is prone to malapropisms, the handicapped twin plays a lot of word games—especially palindromes—in her head, etc. Such traits serve as reminders of who’s who as you read through the book, but they can also be rather crude distinctions.

Frankly they all think and write more like late 20th century adult female novelists than like minimally educated children raised in a sheltered fundamentalist environment several decades ago.

The most incongruous of the voices in that regard is that of the youngest daughter. Kindergarten age kids simply don’t think or communicate this way, not in terms of word choice, spelling, logical structure, comprehension of the world around them, or anything else.

Which raises the question, just what is it we’re supposed to imagine we’re reading? Excerpts from contemporaneous written journals they kept? Transcripts of contemporaneous audio journals they recorded? Memoirs written later as adults? Something later rewritten and cleaned up by a professional editor?

No such hypothesis works. It can’t be something they wrote later as adults, because one doesn’t even make it to adulthood. It can’t be contemporaneous raw material, because, as I noted, it’s way, way too polished and professional and free of grammatical and spelling errors. On the other hand it can’t be raw material that was rewritten into something professional by someone else, because then it wouldn’t contain the few errors—the malapropisms of the eldest daughter especially—that it does.

Well, maybe that doesn’t matter. If I stopped and thought about all the novels I’ve read that were written in whole or in part in the first person, maybe they routinely are much closer to the writing style of a professional novelist than to the writing style one would expect the characters in question to have. I just found it mildly unsatisfying here.

I didn’t love the novel, but there’s enough meat in it for me to give it a thumbs up overall. It deals (from reasonably well to very well) with many, many important and interesting topics, from gender relations to culture clashes to geopolitics to economic exploitation to fundamentalist religion to child development, and on and on.

Yes, at times it veers a little too predictably into “Men bad; women good” or “White American Christians bad; nonwhite indigenous people good” territory, but it includes enough counterexamples to avoid going off the deep end in that regard. The natives are mostly portrayed as wise and noble, and as rightfully looking down on the arrogant rubes plopped down in their midst, but the author allows at least occasional instances of their being ignorant, deceitful, or homicidal.

The Poisonwood Bible is an ambitious novel, one that succeeds more than it fails.

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