Over 10 years and eight books, Barbara Kingsolver has very modestly, very politely, built herself the kind of reputation which writers don't go in for much nowadays - steadily accrued by word-of-mouth personal recommendation from one reader to another. No shaving her head in public. No posing naked behind a pile of her own oeuvre. Just one book after another, passionately written and passionately read.
I'd certainly never heard of Barbara Kingsolver when a friend frog-marched me into a bookshop in 1989 and insisted that I read her first novel, The Bean Trees. It's a vivid memory because, before or since, I've never had a book pressed into my hand with the same degree of joyous evangelical urgency.
"Everyone says that," Kingsolver laughs. "It's always: `My mother, my sister, my friend, made me read you.' I didn't come to best-seller status through the front door, more through the basement."
It's been a slow climb for Kingsolver, but all that woman-to-woman enthusing has suddenly achieved critical mass. This week The Poisonwood Bible is sitting at number two in the American best-seller lists, having sold 40,000 copies in its first month of publication. The 43-year-old writer is incredulous.
"A challenging book like this, up there with Tom Wolfe?" she shakes her head. "I still can't believe it. Epidemiologically, my books have been read by women because that's where they were introduced and how they spread," she notes, revealing a hint of her earlier career as a biological scientist, "but now about a third of my mail comes from men."
Maybe the men feel reassured, now she's on an official list, I suggest. "I suppose it has a legitimacy," she nods. "It's not just that underground girlie thing."
Kingsolver, who was born in a small town in rural Kentucky, has now lived for 20 years in the scrubby desert country around Tucson, not far from the Mexican border, where wild, woolly peccaries and roadrunners rootle all day around the mesquite woods outside her cabin. Both landscapes have stamped themselves hard into the distinctive heart of her fiction.
Underpinned by a commanding political conscience, a belief in the ties of community, and a rapturous sense of wonder in the natural world, Kingsolver's stories chart the lives of witty, courageous women coping as best they can with calamity. Animal Dreams pits personal family losses against the encroaching threat of an environmental disaster and the broader background conflict in Nicaragua. The Bean Trees sends an adventurous young woman scuttling away from her hometown in a VW Beetle, determined not to end her days barefoot and pregnant, hog-tied to a future as a tobacco farmer's wife - yet a couple of hours out of town the car's trashed and she's found herself the custodian of an abused Cherokee baby.
"The people I write about are always in a pickle." she admits. "I don't write about women with easy lives, because I don't write science fiction, you know? My books are about survival rather than manners. Where I grew up, that's what occupied people. My writing has always been about my passions. Most writers tell me they begin with incident or character. My point of origin is always theme. I'm not just putting pretty words together for the fun of it. How could I justify that?"
Kingsolver inherited her humanitarian concerns from her parents, who, she recalls, "set me early on a path of exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what's right".
In the middle Sixties, when Barbara was about seven years old, they took her with them to central Africa, where they spent a six-month stint as public health workers in an isolated village in the bush. The experience has resurfaced in her profoundly ambitious new novel, The Poisonwood Bible.
Following an ill-prepared family of American Baptist missionaries deep into the rank malarial jungles of the Belgian Congo in 1959, just as the country staggered towards independence, The Poisonwood Bible is a tenderly comic, but harrowing, tale of family and national catastrophe. Bearing Betty Crocker cake-mixes, pinking-shears, embroidery hoops, and packets of Kentucky Wonder beans, four young girls, their terrified mother Orleanna and their fire-and-brimstone preacher father set off to bring salvation to Africa. Shackled to a singularly unyielding vision of the world, the Rev Price unsuccessfully tries to bend the villagers to his will, attempting to baptise his parishioners in a crocodile-infested river, and mistranslating his own sermons. Incapable of recognising the tonal subtlety of the Kikongo language, he continues to thunder out the message "Jesus is beloved", as "Jesus is poisonwood", a venomous local tree with sap that burns savage, suppurating welts into human flesh.
"The whole book is about a legacy of misunderstanding born out of this combination of absolute faith and arrogance," Kingsolver explains. "We all have it in us to think we are right, blundering along, insisting on our way of seeing things."
A wondrously compelling narrative, The Poisonwood Bible slowly reveals itself as a complex parable about CIA interference in Africa, specifically the assassination of the Congolese leader Patrick Lumumba, and the CIA's role in Mobutu's repressive puppet government.
"I wanted to tackle this issue of the post-colonial world and where we stand in it," says Kingsolver. "Of course, this is a whole tradition of literature in your country, but in the States we're just beginning to look at our culpability."
The defining moment for Kingsolver came in her twenties, when she first pitched up in the south-western states and found herself forced to confront American foreign policy head on.
"Here were people fleeing wars in places such as El Salvador, created by my tax dollars, yet they weren't even allowed to cross the border to flee the death I was helping to pay for," she whispers, in a warm, soft voice that burns with big-sisterly compassion.
"Like Orleanna and the girls, we didn't make it happen, we were the captive witnesses. But this was done in our name: now what? How do we incorporate it into our own stories and make something of it we can carry forward?
"We seem to be living in the age of anaesthesia," Kingsolver remarks in her collection of essays High Tide in Tucson. "Confronted with the knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? We didn't evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defence is to pretend there's no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own." The antidote to apathy, Kingsolver believes, is fiction. "A novel can make us weep over the same events that might hardly give us pause if we read them in a newspaper."
`The Poisonwood Bible', Faber, pounds 10.99