In her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver extends her formidable literary talents with a large-scale fictional narrative set amidst the political turmoil of post-Colonial Africa. Yet, while working on a larger canvas than in past books, Kingsolver nonetheless draws on her finely honed talents for characterization and observation, to create an intimate portrait of one family's tragic confrontation with the unstoppable forces of nature, history, and hubris.
The Price family of Bethlehem, Georgia, arrives in Kilanga, Congo in 1959 as Baptist missionaries. The patriarch, Nathan, is a silver-tongued tent revival preacher who has dragged his wife and four daughters to this squalid African outpost for the exalted purpose of bringing salvation to the natives. Unyielding in his faith, and blind to the surrounding realities of the Congolese culture, Reverend Price refuses to acknowledge the complete and utter failure of this enterprise.
The women of the family, however, have their own individual perspectives, which they lend as the five narrators of the novel. Orleanna, as wife and mother, quickly realizes that her husband's nearly insane zeal will not protect her daughters from the endemic problems of sickness and hunger. The eldest daughter, Rachel, resents being rent from her carefree American teenage life, and maintains a superior detachment from the black-skinned human beings that inhabit her new world. Conversely, the youngest, Ruth May, at only five, has not yet been imbued with narrow prejudices, and she connects with the village children in ways impossible for the adults.
The middle daughters are twins, Leah and Adah. At the start, Leah adores her father, and strives to aid him in his crucial, onerous work among the villagers. Adah, however, despises all that her father represents. Born with damage to one hemisphere of her brain, she is a strangely intelligent child, though physically handicapped and mute by choice. Her unusual ability to read and think backwards, and her propensity for spying, allow her to share an unusual interpretation of events.
Minor inconveniences mount in to life-threatening situations for this pristine American family unaccustomed to the hardship that surrounds them. Then, as the tension and bloodshed of the struggle for national independence spill over from the cities into the countryside, it becomes patently clear the Prices are no longer welcome or safe in Kilanga. But Nathan, refusing to heed the warnings of his superiors, decides his family must stay. It is a decision that will have unspeakably tragic consequences that will irrevocably change each of their lives.
In some ways, The Poisonwood Bible is a departure for its best-selling author, whose earlier novels have embraced more intimate stories set within the regional confines of the United States. Yet familiar Kingslover themes - the clash of cultures, the attainment of self awareness, the struggle to overcome stifling conventions, the preservation of heritage - still resound in this ambitious and towering indictment of imperialism and unchecked cultural arrogance.
Synthesizing her widespread knowledge of history, science and anthropology, and tempering it with characteristic insight and wit, Barbara Kingsolver has written her most accomplished novel to date.
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