10/08/2006

The Poisonwood Bible (by Barbara Kingsolver)

It feels as if I've been reading for weeks and weeks... looking back, I realise it's only two and a half weeks. Still, that's a long time for me to take over a novel, and reflects my mixed feelings about it. It's the first book I've read by Barbara Kingsolver, and I certainly enjoyed her writing style. The narration is shared by five people - a mother and her four daughters - and their distinct voices and characters came through strongly, with humour in places - particularly Rachel's malapropisms.

'The Poisonwood Bible' is about a hard-headed Baptist missionary who wants to convert a village in the Congo. He's not a very well-developed or likeable character, but the caricature enables the rest of the family to write about him from their differing perspectives, to learn valuable lessons about culture, and to cope with the immense difficulties that beset them.

At times it felt long-winded, and I found that one section was enough for me to read at a time. The ending dragged a bit, too. Yet it was a somehow compulsive book that kept me thinking, and I was never tempted to give up on it. Politics are interwoven throughout the book, which is well researched in addition to being based partly on the author's childhood experiences living in Africa. Does it reveal the truth about the destruction of a lovely country and American plots to overthrow its attempt at independence? I don't know enough to be certain, but there's almost certainly a fair amount of truth in it, even if only one person's viewpoint. Politics are never straightforward, after all.

It also cleverly demonstrates, without preachiness, the shallowness of some people's lives, and they way perspectives change so radically when living elsewhere. The family start by taking - of all things - packaged cake mixes into the Congo, not realising that humidity would ruin them. These mixes are a symbol of the frivolous lives they led before - and which Rachel continues to hanker after, until she believes she has found true fulfilment.

Recommended in a guarded way as a not-so-light read with good characterisation.

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