jan-2017-tbrGosh, it’s really hard to write a review of a book everyone else in the world seems to have read first! I’m the first to admit – and feel bad – that I’m not very good at reading books about Africa; although it seems a cliché to say it, they do seem to dwell on conflict and while I completely accept it’s important to read and know about conflict, I’m a fairly wussy reader and can’t deal with scenes of peril and violence. Knowing this was about the bloody history of what started out as the Belgian Congo from the 1960s, I did check with a few friends first as to whether I’d be able to cope with this one, and was reassured. And, it being by a favourite author, of course I found it amazing.

Barbara Kingsolver – “The Poisonwood Bible”

(11 July 2016, charity shop, Bridlington)

An amazing and powerful read, told in the voices of Orleanna Price and her four daughters, who are compelled by their paterfamilias, the misguided and pig-headed Nathan, to move to the Belgian Congo to be missionaries, originally for a year, until history sweeps over their lives. As the women of the house adapt, bend and blend (as well as becoming frustrated, depressed and ill), noticing and learning from their mistakes, he blunders along, making things worse and worse, insulting the villagers they live with and ending up with a “congregation” of misfits and outcasts.

Added to all of this and the biblical plagues that attack the small community and smaller mission, it’s the early 1960s and the fight for independence and also the international fight over the country’s natural resources get underway, leaving the Price family trapped and in danger.

For Orleanna, every day for a long, long time has been a fight to stay within her family, and as the hardships pile up, each woman must make the decision on how to save herself and/or her sisters. The different routes to physical and moral salvation – or not – are explored and the history of the country, shamefully not noticed at the time, has its inexorable effect on their lives in different ways, to greater or lesser extents, but is explained and not forced onto the reader.

Danger and peril are prefigured from the very start and throughout the book, with Kingsolver’s literary skill able to weave tiny references through the text and to show how the smallest bad decision can multiply into disaster. The voices of the women are beautifully differentiated, from spoilt Rachel with her malapropisms to little Ruth May with her small child’s take on events. It’s not entirely clear whether it’s better to try to save yourself or to throw in your lot with Africa and its people – the continent has its effect on everyone and perhaps the most positive characters are those who seek to help without changing, understand without preaching and imposing beliefs, whether that’s the previous missionary who got “too close” to the villagers or Adah with her understanding of medical science.

An ambitious work which does, I think, succeed: it’s not all grim, there’s beauty and wonderful description, and it feels like an important and respectful record of the evils of colonialism.

Phew, done! I’m going to move onto NetGalley book “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars” next, because I need a light palate cleanser after this excellent read. Do you remember reading “The Poisonwood Bible”? Would you press it upon someone who’s not read it?