Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

I finished this book a week ago, I think. Now that I've had time to really think about everything that happened within the book, it's time for the review.

(Okay. This turned into more a character synopsis than a review. Forgive me. I need to work on being more cohesive in these things.)

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Set in the 1960's, a young missionary and his family move to the Congo to help spread the great gospel and learn more about themselves than they ever thought possible.

That sentence is very brief and explains absolutely nothing that actually happens in the book, but it is the best sentence I could come up with to act as an adequate synopsis of the storyline.

There are five narrators in the novel. They each have their own distinct voice, as narrators do; and they all exist for each other, and often in spite of each other, it seems.

Orelanna, the mother, says the least out of all the narrators. Her back story is revealed to us casually. We learn that she married Nathan, the missionary, not out of love really, but because she had a distinct lack of other choices. She does not regret her decisions but she understands that they cause her children pain. She is also incapable of defying her husband, at first. She is, to me, the strongest of all the characters at the end of the story. She fights to get everyone out of the village and once they are back on American soil, goes to live her own life in her own way. She never apologizes for her actions; she exists and lives and moves on.

The other narrators of the story are her daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. They are very much their own people with distinct personalities and ideas about the world.

Rachel is a teenager when they move to the Congo. She sneaks Betty Crocker cake mix under her clothes so she can have a "real" sweet-sixteen party when her birthday comes. She dreams of mohair twin sets and pearl necklaces. She is the daughter that throws herself into the hope chest project with the most fervor. She makes the most stuff for her future marriages; which is a noted parallel to her many marriages, "quantity over quality."

Rachel is the daughter that ends the novel in a better place than most of the characters, it seems. She is happy with her inn. She makes good money. She enjoys her life and lifestyle. She is in charge of something she loves, which she would have never thought possible as a teenager in the Congo or even Georgia. She is in a position of control, which is all she ever wanted. While she may not have children, like Leah; or be researching how to cure the world of malaria, like Adah; Rachel is exactly where she wants to be. She doesn't have to answer to anyone anymore, just the way she likes it.

Leah, the tomboy daughter, starts out the novel with the most promise. She is the strongest. She is the one willing to go help their father in the garden and learns about the village they are staying in. She is the most likely candidate to escape the Congo. Yet, it is Leah that falls in love with the teacher of the village and stays there to have many children and watch the Congo falter under many leaders and dictators. She witnesses her husband go to jail for several years because of his involvement with the rebellion. She raises three children while her husband is off helping to improve the Congo and thus getting arrested for his efforts. Leah is the glue that holds the family together at the beginning but quickly gets herself stuck there. She is the one who first learns of their father's ultimate death at the hands of the natives he so blindly tried to save.

Nathan Price is a hard man to like. He does not get to narrate the story the same way the women do, and for good reason. He is not a father I would want to have, or a father I would want to give my children. He is broken. His spirit was wounded in a war he never talks about and he cannot forgive himself for sins he committed decades ago. His family suffers because of his actions and inability to move forward with his life. He thinks he is healing the world by preaching to the natives in the Congo, but he is punishing himself and his family for his incredulousness. He makes the decision to stay in the Congo long after the Belgians have pulled out and stopped all the funding to the family for their missionary work. He puts them all in danger and doesn't see the error of his ways.

Adah is Leah's twin, and like many twins, they are nothing alike. Adah is the mute. She never talks, not because she can't. It's simply because she thinks no one will listen to her. She does not partake in the hope chest project their mother puts forth. She draws black ex's all over her things, predicting her marriage future in an instant. She goes to medical school when they return to the states and becomes a prominent researcher in diseases. She takes her experiences in the Congo and turns them into a profitable career.

Ruth May, exempt from the hope chest project because she was too young is forever exempt from the world of marriage. She is the baby of the family and the least likely to take her malaria pills. This is not what kills her, but she spends a majority of the novel sick in bed with the illness. She is delusional for most of the novel. Her parts are short and riddled with confusion. She sees things as a five year old would, sometimes providing much needed clarity and other times she is merely a mimic of the things spoken around her.

And last but not least, Methusulah, the parrot. I loved this little addition into the story. Methusulah was there before the Price family. He was Brother Fowles' pet and learned to mimic, like parrots will. The plot line can almost be completely summed up by what happens to Methusulah. He is an internal mirror of the story at hand, especially Nathan's. Nathan lets Methusulah free because he cannot stand what the parrot has learned to say, yet the years he's spent inside a cage, dependent on others for his meals keeps him around. Nathan is the very much the same. Once he is free from his family, he is still dependent on his "congregation" for his sustenance. He doesn't know any other way to live. They are both killed by their inability to move on, to let go.

Those who cannot adapt eventually die. This rings true throughout the entire novel. The background of the war and rebellion in the Congo provided both a good background and a good catalyst for the fighting and rebellion within the family.

Overall, a decent book. A little long for my liking and slow in some places, but well written.

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