Books: Heart of Darkness with Band Aids

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The Independent Culture
The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver Faber pounds 10.99

Years ago I stumbled across Barbara Kingsolver by accident. A copy of her first novel The Bean Trees had been left behind in a holiday cottage. My wife read it and warned me that few men would warm to a novelist with such a commanding female presence. When there was nothing left to read in the cottage except a dog-eared Tom Clancy, I reluctantly turned to Kingsolver and what I assumed from the blurb would prove to be a whiney tale: a poor white-trash woman escapes to New Mexico and ends up adopting a motherless waif. Tom Clancy was looking better all the time.

Then I read a little of the Kingsolver and soon swallowed it whole. Every sentence seemed effortless, and yet carefully crafted like a string of polished stones. Now a decade later, shows what happens when one of the most talented writers of our generation comes to maturity. This is a profoundly ambitious novel set in the Belgian Congo as it comes to independence. There are multiple first-person narrators, all women - the wife and four children of Nathan Price, a white American Baptist missionary. It is Heart of Darkness in reverse. Instead of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz, the Price family from Georgia, with their cake mixes, Band-Aids and rigid American faith, bring the darkness with them. The women reach a crisis of revelation, while the increasingly unhinged Nathan persists in the Lord's work to the amusement and finally the horror of the locals.

Brother Nathan plants American seeds in African soil, but they never bear fruit. He promises to save souls through baptism in the local river, yet his ignorance is so deep he does not realise Congolese mothers fear the lunatic white man who wants to risk their children in waters filled with crocodiles. The distant background is of Superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the USA as the Europeans de-colonise Africa and the white men plot to kill the democratically elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. But the core of the novel is the bizarre clash between a naive missionary family and the remote yet sophisticated African village culture they try to change. What changes most are the white women - Nathan's wife, who compares her marriage to colonialism in which the riches are stolen from "the emptied-out mine of her womb", or one of Nathan's daughters who marries an educated Congolese and who cannot settle in the racist American South during the struggle for civil rights.

As with off-putting blurb on the The Bean Trees, baldly summarising makes it sound like a feminist primer in political correctness, but what triumphs is Kingsolver's gentle good humour, the ingenuity of the strong women characters and a universal human spirit. Brother Nathan preaches a purblind and arrogant Gospel, translating bloodthirsty Old Testament tales which horrify the few strays who pass for his congregation. He even mistranslates his own central message, lecturing puzzled locals that "Jesus is poisonwood", the local tree which lives up to its name. The Price women go native, wondering, as the gifted Adah does, what kind of God would ensure that "a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo, rather than, say, north Georgia". They, like Africa, finally rebel against Nathan Price's colonial rule, though with terrible consequences.

A great deal of fiction currently fashionable in Britain resembles filigree work. It documents smaller and smaller areas of experience, the intricacies of Notting Hill or Scottish council housing estates. In comparison, Barbara Kingsolver has created a monument in solid steel. ranks with the most ambitious works of post-colonial literature and it should at last establish Kingsolver's reputation in Europe as one of America's most gifted novelists. How glad I am that I never did read that dog-eared Tom Clancy.