Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Browsing randomly through the non-genre aisles is just a terrible way to shop for books, no matter what your dotty strollers and romantically-inclined geeks would prefer to tell you. It's great to get drawn in by something stacked nearby and all (I might have been rewarded to find my way here if, for example, I happened to be mired in the Stephen King wing of the store) but if you don't have much free time, it's a lot better to have a list. This time I didn't, and so when I made a trip to the local Barnes and Noble to support one my daughter's school programs, I was encouraged to buy something quickly, but also listlessly. The Barbara Kingsolver book I had intended to buy, had I remembered to write it down, was her charming manifesto about gardening, not her Important Novel from the fiction section. I'm not angry about it. It's more of a segue than a complaint.

The Poisonwood Bible was very enjoyable—I tore right through it—although if you ever catch me without some criticisms, then look for signs of encroaching senility. I hate to be pushed that hard by the display, and a novel marketed as significant has got to face some high standards. In that light, I'll try and reveal my usual assortment of faint damns as quickly as I can; there were definitely some small contentions that kept creeping in. The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a missionary family's attempt to evangelize a village in the Congo in the early 1960s, told in a sequence of rotating (all-female) character points of view. We are introduced to Orleanna first, the mother, who in the opening sequence appears to be addressing the reader (she actually is not, and there is a nice symmetry with the Orleanna pieces that is not obvious at the outset, which do well under a re-read) and introducing the story as a stand-in for the author herself. This next shifts to the point of view of Leah, one of the middle children, and she is similar enough to her mother's voice, and so damnably precocious for a 14-year-old, that she sounds a lot like the author too. Two of the other sisters (Ruth May and Rachel, the oldest and youngest) feel again similar, but now straightjacketed respectively by childhood and by general dimwittedness, which leaves Adah as the odd girl out, physically handicapped, sly, secretive, and cynical, and of course I liked her best from the get-go. For the other four, it takes a while for their individual natures to be drawn out. To be fair, they're family, facing the same immovable obstacles, and I am sure that Kingsolver realizes that it's not uncommon to get to know a bunch of sisters this way.

The bulk of the novel covers the 18 months or so they lived in the Congo village, a period which takes them through the nation's independence from Belgium, and quick subjugation under the Mobutu regime. A frame story for revealing the alternating anecdotes would have helped this book a great deal. The individual sequences comes off a little like the indistinctly-timed interview portions of your lazier television mockumentary. It is unclear how do their composition might fit in alongside with the contemporaneously occurring drama. It's as if the characters are being deposed in some neutral purgatory space by the omniscient narrator. It would be a plausible explanation if Nathan had ordered the kids to write about their experiences--it would have been within his character, and they had plenty of downtime--but if the parents had been aware of children's' diaries, then some of the challenges in the book could have been overcome by reading them. And only Adah is ever portrayed as keeping a journal (a coded one). Touching on this framing issue could have helped some other things too. Leah (who I continue to see as the author's stand-in) is the only character that really seems to grow and change much in that long real-time section. If they wrote them all at once (as hinted by the section headings), then that would explain the stasis in tone, but in that case, the voices still don't change in the next sections, years or months later. Maybe we expect this from Rachel, who only grows into a bigger nitwit during this stretch, but here's Ruth May, who's somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 years old at the beginning (I missed her revealed age, but old enough to write?) and in almost two years, we'd expect her especially to evolve a great deal.

A few throwaways and Kingsolver could have settled the minds of certain kinds of continuity-minded geeks, but the stasis goes even a little beyond that. The conflict in the story is very well laid out, and the set pieces are well-positioned to proceed to a logical and probably inevitable conclusion, which they do. And to an extent they are revealed or they intensify (I don't want to give the impression that the plot is poorly written), but the conflicts do not develop. It's stated at the outset that Orleanna resents her husband, she doesn't grow to that point. Nathan doesn't become a tyrant, he starts as one. The only one that moves away from Nathan (and that needs to) is Leah, and she moves to someone else, a(n improbably appropriate) romantic interest, but that one's telegraphed from miles away too. The sections play out as examples of the known difficulties, but those misunderstandings were always there. And it's weird, because in the last third of the book, the long epilogue, the characters age in great leaps, and get a chance to look back to understand how their experience in Africa has defined them. Here the evolution of their characters is suddenly wholly plausible and highly persuasive. Now Adah is challenged with the selfishness of her conception of things. (Is it plausible that her handicap was merely learned behavior, incidentally? It gives her an interesting vehicle for self-reflection, but I'm not sure how realistic that is.) Now Leah develops depth to her cultural understanding. Hell, even Rachel evolves postscripturally into the true mode of her uselessness, and Kingsolver is able to subtly put an iota of wisdom in her head too. Certainly she's grown beyond a Georgia debutante, despite her disinclination to.

A modern reader might find it hard to buy into Nathan. He's a smart and motivated guy, but how could he maintain his will over a family of wiser, cleverer, more dynamic, and more interesting women by the mere force of patriarchy? If he didn't resemble so many of that, and even the children's (my parents') generation, if I didn't see my own family members so clearly right in there, then I might think him a caricature. Instead, I see him as an accurate (if extreme) portrayal of how people can oppress and subdue the families they imagine they nurture. His religious inflexibility is ironic--as if Christianity hadn't evolved to accommodate any number of societies, including his distinctively American Baptist take on it—but Nathan isn't a man with the slightest dose of irony, nor one to question the singularity of the American experience. If we learn anything more about Nathan, it's the perfect depth of his contemptibility.

The parallel of the Price family with America's treatment of the Congo isn't very subtle, and it gets a mention, but admirably, Kingsolver doesn't really harp on it. Viewing (patriarchal) politics and society from the angle of motherhood and womanhood is useful. The author shows, in the context of an interesting story, how power can be willfully blind and self-interested, as well as how its use can extend from the powerful, or fail to, instead extending from the setting. (To that running interest of mine, she makes a good anthropological case, intentionally or no, about calorie (and protein) availability as it dictates certain modes of civilization.) The African women are focused mostly on the basic dynamics of life and the forces above impinge on it, but change things only with difficulty, more by changing the conditions of things than imposing rules and ideas. I thought Kingsolver did an excellent job of positioning that observational understanding against the larger relationships in the world theater, giving the modern corporate state the indictment it deserves, although occasionally you do occasionally get a whiff of credulity when it comes to the prospect of any better proposals (Could Lumumba really have been so benevolent? Could the pre-contact Congolese society really have been so well balanced?) but it's smart to pose them from Leah who is given to a bit of ideal-worship in spite of moving past her old man, and anyway, it's understood that these are lost questions, worth regretting.

[There's probably a good case to be made that the Enlightenment- or colonial-era Europeans did not understand primitivism very well, or were at least ill-equipped to study it. (I say "probably" because I'm still not very willing to delve into the source literature.) It seems like a related issue, although I think it'd be better to say that your typical citizen these days, with more available information but lots of his own society's structure and benefits in front of his eyes, simply declines to make a validating comparison. I think that Kingsolver (based as much on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle than this one) and I, as well as of other writers on the theme (Wendell Berry or Eduardo Galeano come to mind), and a couple readers of this blog, will agree that we've ignored some valuable lessons from the throwback days, that would be worth re-examining in a modern context. A community of interconnected but more deeply rooted localities, each appropriate to its own environment, is probably a better one, and possibly an end-point of our own arc anyway. I don't know if it's realistic to think we can up and go all Iroquois Confederation or anything, but it's interesting how radical that would really be. Western history has been a long story of consolidation and subjugation over the couple of millennia (and of course people got the empire bug in Asia, Africa and the Americas from time to time too). Localizing like that would certainly throw the European-style bordered nation-state right on its ass, but I have my usual urge to caveat the hell out of that sort of thing: (1) we'd need a lot fewer people; (2) it's a better land-use and community support model, but it's society model that has a lot of room to righteously suck. Ample interconnections between the nodes has got to be an improvement over a more primitive form, as does technology and exchange. Imagine limited but versatile travel, easy communication, ready access to ideas, science and history. Also, (3) centralization works for some things, although it seems very difficult to pick and choose what we employ it for. Public insurance and resource management without ruling classes and wars between them? Good luck with that. Maybe I should call all this out as a longer post, but it fits in Kingsolver's themes, and frankly, I desperately need some new headlines.]


Cindy said...

I loved this book. Have read it twice. Caveat - I also think Barbara Kingsolver is as close as an author comes to being a hero of mine.

That said, here are my gripes with the novel:

1. The mother.
2. Rachel.
3. Deus ex machina with Adah

Other than that, I really loved it. I think the relationship between Nathan the Africans is absolutely brilliantly done, and as heavy handed as the images were in my head, I think Kingsolver is much more subtle in her writing about them.

I thought she did a beautifully balanced job of conveying a sense of the Congo during this time, without going off on any preachy historical rewrite. In fact, she inspired me to go look up some of the history and I think that says something good about her writing.

Adah's take on her dad is fabulous. I liked her all the way til the end. Then blech.

The mother was just a nightmare character, not even a good villain.

I carry the image of the ants marching through the village with me as if I lived it myself. And again, I credit her writing.

I'm way more complementary than you because I have zero talent for writing a book review (loved it! hated it!) but I was kind of thrilled to see you had read this!

Her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" was one of those books that made me go out and do something different in my life. You know, when a writer can do that they have really succeeded.

Good review! :)

Joe is reading the Game of Thrones books. I assume in preparation for watching the Cable series. Have you read them?

Cindy said...

Oh, and I agree with your assessment of Nathan entirely. During my first read I kept waiting for him to get some irony.

During my second read I was struck by how subtle his complete lack of irony was, and how priceless it is in the book.

Willful lack of irony - how American can you get?

Keifus said...

Hey Cindy.

I think we're on exactly the same page wrt Adah and Rachel. The mother, well, I'm not sure I disliked her exactly. Was she meant to be a villain? To my eyes, she was a person who mostly lacked the wherewithal to do more than make the best of a situation within the confines of marriage she felt she had no power to overcome. She was once a person of mystery and magic, in the author's words, but not power, who had unintentionally let herself be broken, and it all seemed pretty authentic to me. I think in less extreme circumstances she would have been a hero for passively resisting the old man, and giving the kids a model for obeying but not agreeing.

As I said up there, I've known people from that generation, in which the families were held together by pure force of paternal will. I think it's fair to call it a male ideal of the times, at least supported by my anecdotal evidence (and Hollywood's portrayal of the square 60s dad), and the traditions of social behiavior for everyone else helped to support men like Nathan. Shouldn't she have left? Well, yeah, but I think we greatly underestimate how hard it is to challenge, or even see, the limiting conventions of our times. (Sort of what I was trying to address in that other post.)

As for not preaching, I also agree with you on that one. Kingsolver did a very clever thing in this book, I think, by looking at a subject society from the eyes of people who are also fairly powerless subjects in their own smaller but much richer domain. In both cases, they can be chained and controlled, but they are still an internal world apart from their rulers. It's a lot of valuable compare-and-contrast viewpoint-wise, and it comes off as much less patronizing (which is exactly the right word here) than you might otherwise expect. I mean, it's not as if the author's views are subtle, it's that they're somehow radical (to an orthodox American view) without being obnoxious about it. In the endnote to the edition I bought, she says she finally found the story she was entitled to tell ...which statement does now sound a little preachy actually, but I think she's right, and it's what made the difference here.

Keifus said...

Oh, and I had a copy of Game of Thrones ten years ago that I gave away. I figured Martin bit off a fantasy of such epic proportions that it was unlikely to be completed within his lifetime. I've yet to be proven wrong. (Also, I'd read one or two of the author's earlier science fiction short stories, and didn't think they were quite so amazingly groundbreaking and dangerous as the author appeared to.)

But I might change my mind and at least watch the series, which looks to be pretty engaging.


Keifus said...

P.S. Tried to comment at switters' a couple times, but I've been in some revolving verification thing and it doesn't ever take. If you don't mind, tell him I said hi.

Unknown said...

Wow, this is a really thorough review. Mine isnt as great, but maybe you'd like to view it anyway...