I first read The Poisonwood Bible in 1999, and the following year I carried around its six hundred pages and wealth of wisdom, along with its shocking reminder to tread carefully and with respect, when I returned once more to live in by beloved Zambia.
Barbara Kingsolver is a master of her craft, and such is her dedication to accuracy and detail that she nurtured the Poisonwood story, without writing a word, for almost three decades until she felt she had developed enough personally and as a writer to do it justice. Intense, poetic, pacey, fresh, deep and ever moving, The Poisonwood Bible takes you to a tiny village in a jungle clearing in the heart of the Belgian Congo, where the fiercely evangelical Reverend Nathan Price has arrived fresh from Georgia, USA, with his wife Orleanna and their four daughters. Orleanna and her daughters are perfectly characterised with unique personalities and, with authentic voices, one by one they lead us through their lives over the next forty-five years. Brilliant, oft-times harrowing and painfully believable, they show us how they learn to survive – or not – in this poverty-stricken community where they are the only white people.
The book encompasses not only the dynamics of the Price family, but also the political arena in a country striving for its independence, where interference from foreign governments resulted in the assassination of the president, Patrice Lumumba, only five weeks after the declaration of independence. There followed the installation of Colonel Mabuto who ruled with violence and corruption for the next thirty-five years, during which time, as the puppet of the United States, he facilitated the continued theft of the Congo's diamonds and gold while his own people starved in poverty, lived without sanitation and died of diseases that could easily have been prevented or treated.
In my three readings of this magnificent book, the detail, the weaving of the individual stories and the intricate characterisations never ceased to thrill me, while raising a tumult of emotion as I lived this adventure with the characters and also relived my own life in Africa. I could see the flamboyant African colours - the heavy grey or vaulted blue of African skies; the amazing turquoise and mauve of the lilac-breasted roller; the heart-breaking purple of jacarandas (the only thing in nature to which I am allergic). I could smell the perfume of frangipani blossom. I could hear the haunting call of the fish eagle and the voices of the people of our farm as they sang in that characteristic African style of call and response, and rejoice with the women ululating when a baby was born. My feet were again walking on my farm in the early mornings as I listened to the vast array of birds. I could hear the owls softly snoring in my roof and watch their silent flight and be aware of the fear of the people who believe that owls come to steal their souls. I could taste the red laterite dust of Africa on my tongue. My body was dancing again to the sound of a Zairean band and my hair was being blown by the August wind. Once again I could smell the fires and the smoke as the farm woke up, and the nuzzling sweetness of the newborn babies. As I read about Axelroot flying into the Congo interior, I was once again in 1974, piloting my Piper Cherokee across the Congo Pedicle with shots being fired beneath me. The mention of the poetry of the first president of Angola, Agostino Neto, and the wisdom of Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957, had me also watching the first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, as he waved his trade mark white handkerchief.
Many books have been written about Africa, but for me, none has so tenderly or brutally touched my raw, inner conflict and the deep love and respect I have for the land and the people. My anger about the poverty and corruption surged while my grief and longing to be where at least some of me knows I belong was reawakened. The conundrum of Africa is brilliantly captured by the voice of Leah who falls in love with and marries a young Congolese teacher and lives in poverty, while her sister, Rachel owns a 'whites only' hotel and feels nothing but disdain for those she employs. That same conflict is within Nathan who verbalises his love for Jesus while his behaviour tells a story of control and supremacy, violence and power. It is there in every character who survives fire and famine, war and desperate longing for peace, betrayal and loss and the love that both holds them together and pushes them apart.
Alive and authentic, all in all the book made me ache for Africa as every one of my cells cried, 'Home...'
Each of Kingsolver's books has a cause about which she obviously feels passionate. Each is thoroughly researched and cleverly highlighted through the lives of her characters. With her amazing gift for creating prose that is sparkling and sophisticated and characters that are sometimes sassy or downright hilarious, and with themes that are important to us all – whether the disturbance of nature's balance by interference as in Prodigal Summer, the rights of children as in The Bean Trees or climate change in Flight Behaviour (which I've not yet completed), she challenges us to stretch and look at our own perhaps too long held notions.
Brenda lives in Wales and is a published author of non-fiction. She has just completed her first novel, Nora, and is now working on another novel. You can find out more about her on www.brendadavies.com