The Poisonwood Bible struck me as a strange but intriguing novel. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Price family are uprooted from their comfortable home in America to live in the Belgian Congo. Nathan, the father, is a missionary full of dangerously religious zeal, intent on converting everyone he meets to Christianity. His is the dominant personality in the first half of the novel, and yet it is his wife and four daughters who are the narrators, alternating throughout. In this way we see the consequences of Nathan Price’s overbearing personality through the eyes of the ones who suffer from it most.
Nathan is humourless and cold, and is hard on his family and his congregation. When the Prices first arrive in the Congo, the Congolese people crowd round their plane, cheering and welcoming them, even laying on a feast for their arrival. When Nathan stands to speak, he begins a lecture about the sinfulness of the villagers, pointing out the women and children’s nakedness accusingly. He is met with stunned silence.
He finds all women weak and useless, and considers it pointless to send his daughters to college, comparing such an act to “pouring water in your shoes”. He is impatient with his family and disappointed by their failure to grasp his narrow-minded religious logic. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character.
His wife and daughters bow submissively to his bullying and hectoring at the start of the novel, but as the political dangers increase and the duration of their stay in the Congo lengthens, they slowly and desperately begin to rebel in their own ways.
As the novel progresses, Nathan’s power gradually slips away from him. He remains the same man, but he simply becomes less able to control his family and his parishioners; they are simply too wild for him and slip out of his reach.
There’s a lovely paragraph which describes the West’s inability to tame and civilise Africa. In it a road running through the jungle, laid by white men in an attempt to civilise a large part of the country and link two cities, is gradually taken back to its original state by the creepers and the dust. This is just what Nathan finds with the Congolese people and with his family. He tries to overpower them, and does not attempt to understand them, but rather than standing up to him and allowing him to break their spirit, they bend around him, allowing him to do as he pleases, then return to their own ways. They may emerge buffeted by his wrath, but are not intrinsically changed. It struck me as an inspiring message of the enduring spirit of a country and its people, whatever damage may be done by both outsiders and by Africans themselves. Nathan never learns to accept this and continues to preach his Western morality throughout the novel, getting nowhere and losing everything in the process.
Every member of this family struggles with guilt. Each person experiences it for different reasons and to varying degrees. One of the key reasons for guilt in the book can be attributed to the role their country has played in the corruption and exploitation of Africa. The way in which the US is described as manipulating African politics and the American media is shocking. The novel is set mainly in the 1960s and 70s, but the far-reaching effects of this interference into the present day are heavily implied, although left unsaid.
I’d like to say more but I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot. This is a difficult book to review, in that there are so many different themes which I could touch on. I’ve focused on a few parts which don’t give too much away and which stood out for me in order to give you some sort of flavour for the novel’s content.
It’s also difficult to review because I’m not sure whether I truly liked the book or not. It’s certainly well-written, containing some beautifully lyrical passages, and well worth reading for an angle on Africa’s recent history, something which I knew shamefully little about (as usual). However, it’s an angry book, with a passionate message and strong characters, all of which I feel I can’t even go into without spoiling some of the book. All in all I’d recommend it, but don’t blame me if you come away feeling confused about how you feel.