Tuesday, October 7, 2008

An Elegant Tale of a Harrowing Encounter with Africa

Everyone has those books which haunt them, unread - the ones whose repute and cover seem to reappear in every place to taunt you and your schedule, whispering, "Why are we not yet met?"

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, was such a book for me. That was, until this evening, when the jeering was silenced upon its close.

The novel is narrated by five females - a wife and four daughters - carted off to the Congo on a zealous Baptist missionary's quest to "save Africa from its sins". Kingsolver elegantly weaves together each of these perspectives in tones appropriate to each character, and their ages.

In addition to relishing in the intricacies of difference betwixt each chapter's style, I delighted in scriptural allusions, rich humour, and the fundamental dilemma of the story - how does a Baptist preacher from Bethlehem, Georgia, propose to teach the people of a small African village how to live? (Or more loosely, how does the white man propose to teach Africa how to live?)

You are met first by the mother's voice, with tight little metaphors I enjoyed, such as, "I had washed up there on the riptide of my husband's confidence and the undertow of my children's needs".

Meanwhile, a sample of the youngest's thoughts, in contrast; "God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah's three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drownded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got on the boat so they were A-okay".

Leah, the deliberate favourite, describes this new and strange world initially through naive eyes, and later, fondly and passionately with maturity.

Adah, Leah's "crippled" twin, secretly rejoices in being different. With savant-like talents, she creates rhymes and anagrams of everyday things, and speaks rarely - inviting readers to feel special for having access to her thoughts.

The eldest is a pretty and vain thing, and many of chapters include the phrase "charmed I'm sure" more than once, and many of her mondegreens amuse, such as her referral to Moses' return from "Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to ruin your life".

Each chapter is headed with its teller's name, so there is no Janet Frame-esque confusion about whose mind you're in.

Each shift was refreshing, the journey was worth telling, and the details were intelligent and relevant.

While The Poisonwood Bible is more of a slow and graceful waltz than a fiery samba, it is a worthy ghost until read.
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