“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
I’ve been a Ned Beauman fan ever since I read his debut, Boxer, Beetle, in 2011. Born in 1985, the Londoner is now the author of four novels and was named one of Granta’s 20 best British novelists under the age of 40. His books are madcap and complex; three out of four have historical settings (all broadly in the World War II era), but this is definitely not historical fiction as we know it. If I tell you that some common elements in his work are Nazis, pharmaceuticals and gay sex, and that his first two books reminded me most of Nick Harkaway, you’ll get some idea of the niche he’s working in.
Madness Is Better than Defeat takes its title from a line in Orson Welles’s never-filmed screenplay of Heart of Darkness. We open in 1959 with Zonulet, a 43-year-old alcoholic CIA officer, writing a tell-all memoir about what happened when two parties set out to find a Mayan temple in Honduras in 1938. Sadistic business magnate Elias Coehorn, Sr. sent his feckless son, Elias Jr., to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York City, while Arnold Spindler, chairman of Kingdom Pictures, tasked Jervis Whelt with directing a movie on location at the temple: Hearts in Darkness, a comedy about a spoiled society boy who’s sent on an archaeological dig to a Mayan temple and opens a nightclub when he gets there.
The scene is set for a clash of cultures: the New York faction bent on destruction versus the Los Angeles crew intent on creation. They’re joined by Joan Burlingame, a stuffy Cambridge anthropologist, and Leland Trimble, a gossip journalist who was formerly Zonulet’s colleague at the New York Evening Mirror. To start with the screwball plot is uncannily similar to that of Hearts in Darkness itself, and it seems the stalemate between the two groups will be mined purely for comic potential. But as the years pass and the deadlock continues, this becomes more of a psychological study of a community in isolation, rather like The Lord of the Flies or T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts.
Alliances are formed and broken based on blackmail over the characters’ past and present indiscretions; routines and workarounds are developed (though an attempt to recreate Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict fails); soon a whole new generation is being raised with little knowledge of what’s happened outside this jungle for more than a decade; all they have to go on is false information about the outcome of World War II conveyed by an ex-Nazi.
They spoke in American accents and they had all been taught a sort of eschatology in which they would one day return with their parents to Hollywood or New York. But they belonged to the rainforest and to the temple. And the geometry of the latter … was so primal to them that any talk of disassembly or reassembly struck them as abstract, almost paradoxical.
One of the hardest things to believe about the story line – so you’ll simply have to suspend your disbelief – is that no one was overly concerned when these two groups failed to reappear after assignments that were meant to last only a matter of weeks. Not until Zonulet gets to Honduras in 1956 to learn more about a secret CIA guerrilla training camp in the area is there sustained interest in what became of these exiled Americans, and it’s another two years before their jungle idyll comes to an explosive end.
What we have here is a twist on the Mummy’s Curse trope, with the temple causing many to lose their minds or their lives. I wish the novel could have retained its initial screwball charm without going quite so dark and strange, but that’s Beauman for you. I also thought that this was a good 100–150 pages too long, with many more secondary characters, subplots and asides than necessary. Ironically, even after nearly 500 pages, its conclusion left me wondering about some loose ends. But the writing is consistently amusing, particularly the voices captured in letters or diaries and the wacky metaphors:
- “The sky in the west was mixing an Old-Fashioned”
- “All her blood had thickened in her head like the last of the catsup”
- “They were so slathered in mulch that their two bodies together might have been some octopod newly burped from a mudpot.”
- “To describe the truck as temperamental would have been condescending; rather, I had the impression it had been earnestly wrestling with a deep crisis of personal faith about the very principle of internal combustion as a motive power.”
If you’re new to Ned Beauman, I’d suggest starting with The Teleportation Accident, my favorite of his novels. From there you could move on to Boxer, Beetle or Glow; this one can wait until you’re a confirmed admirer.
Madness Is Better than Defeat is published in the UK today, August 24th, by Sceptre and will be available in the USA in February. With thanks to Ruby Mitchell for the free review copy.