Barbara Kingsolver calls her new novel, The Poisonwood Bible, her "magnum opus." And it is 500-plus pages of "the deepest-delving" fiction she's ever written, not to mention a fresh new locale. Packed with themes of cultural diversity, political morality, and environmental ethics, this one, unlike her three previous Southwestern novels, is set in postcolonial Africa. The narrative begins in the relatively tame Belgian Congo of the late 1950s, gains speed in the tumultuous early '60s (with the coup of the independent Lumumba government toppled by the CIA-backed, UN-funded Mobutu government), then branches out several decades in the future. "I set out to ask a very long question," Kingsolver says. "What have we done as a nation, a culture, a people to Africa, and where do we go from here?"
Kingsolver has been waiting her entire life to write this novel. When she was seven years old, her mother and father, both public health officials, moved their family to the Congo for several years. She laughs and says, "I'm happy to say my parents are wonderful people, not at all like the family in the book." There they practiced their medicine while young Barbara kept a journal. She explains the impact: "Living in that part of the world during the formative years of my childhood introduced me to the possibility that everything I had always assumed was right could be totally wrong in another place." Although the story is in no way about her personal familial experience, much of the setting and detail are torn from the pages of that journal. That's not to say she didn't do a heapofresearch; there's an extensive bibliography included at the end of the novel. She also made a number of trips back to Africa and had many experts comment on the manuscript, including the activist, journalist, convicted murderer, and cause célèbre Mumia Abu-Jamal, who gave it the thumbs-up from his cell in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary.
The Poisonwood Bible is the saga of the Price family, a rural Georgia family wrestling with inner demons while living in the small African village of Kilanga. It revolves around Nathan Price, an abusive southern Baptist evangelical minister who forsakes his family on his quest to save the souls of the natives. What begins as a church-sanctioned mission ends in a dangerous battle of wills that separates the Price family forever. The action is filtered primarily through Nathan's four daughters, à la As I Lay Dying, with future-time flashbacks from the mother's point of view. It's through the girls that we learn about Nathan's proclivity toward physical and mental abuse, his lack of fear regarding growing political unrest, and his stubborn insistence that the villagers be baptized in crocodile-infested waters. And through their mother, Orleanna, we find out why Nathan lives with such a heavy and hurtful God-fearing heart: In World War II his entire company died during the Bataan Death March. Although Nathan was honorably discharged, survivor's guilt led him to the jungles of Africa and did not permit him to retreat, no matter what the cost. The price of this intractable attitude is disease, death, and madness.
The novel's post-Congo years, which describe what the Price women do with their lives after the 17 months in the bush, are slightly anticlimactic, but the first 400 pages of this book are stunning and historically accurate to boot. Two scenes in particular are extraordinarily vivid and powerful. The first is a depiction of the biannual migration of ants, a literal sea of ants eating its way across Africa. Kingsolver has seen this natural phenomenon firsthand. "It's thought of as a cleansing. You try to remember the baby and the chickens and let the ants go on about purifying the country." The second happens the day the villagers, plagued by starvation, set fire to the high grass to burn out game. Kingsolver has the ability, in a beautifully painful sort of way, to make these scenes come alive with a single sentence: "Birds hit the wall of fire and lit like bottle rockets."
Although Kingsolver does as few media appearances as she can and ignores media hype with "every molecule" of her being, she has once again consented to do a multicity book tour for her new novel. "I was raised Southern," she says. "It's almost not in me to disappoint people. But what's most important to me is being a mother, a writer, and a responsible member of the community in which I live. The other stuff is incidental. Somehow our culture has dragged authors into this celebrity scene, and it's a place where we really don't belong. I have more to offer if I stay at home and write another book."
The Poisonwood Bible is certainly Kingsolver's most daring and quite possibly her most engaging and provocative outing yet. And if staying at home means another book like it, well, surely the world will survive with one less book tour.
Nelson Taylor is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for Time Out, Paper, Bikini, Bomb, and Salon.