Books: The missionary imposition

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver Faber & Faber, pounds 10.99, 546pp; At the end of a novel about misguided charity, the finger-wagging starts. Enjoy the story, advises Carol Birch, and skip the lessons
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE CAME from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle." So begins The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's brilliantly realised epic of one family's journey to the heart of darkness. The year is 1959. Nathan Price, Southern Baptist preacher, takes his wife and four daughters to the village of Kilanga on a mission to convert the Congolese to Christianity. A compelling catastrophe of mutual misunderstanding unfolds.

Nathan, "Our Father," is obsessed with baptising all the children of the village in the river, which, to the Kilangans, wise to the ways of crocodiles, signifies death. He plants tomatoes and Kentucky Wonder beans, but they cannot be pollinated by exotic African bugs. "Jesus is bangala!" he cries at the end of sermons. Bangala ("most precious") spoken with the wrong intonation becomes "poisonwood," the name of a tree that confers a deadly itch.

The preacher's descent into fanatical madness is narrated in turn by each of his four daughters: five-year-old Ruth May, Leah, who loves her father and loves the Kilangans, jive-talking Rachel, who misses her deodorant and hairspray, and lame, speechless Adah, who discovers that "here, bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace". Kingsolver gives each her own voice. These are rounded, convincing portraits; we become totally involved with them and their untenable plight, as their father's unsuccessful mission lurches from bad to worse and the family falls foul of almost the entire village, including the Chief and, fatally, the nganga or, in the words of the preacher, "what we call a witch doctor".

Against the explosive background of Congolese independence from Belgium, the election and assassination of Patrice Lumumba and coming to power of the dictator Mobutu, the family struggles against worms in the flour, poisonous snakes, killer ants, illness, starvation and hostile neighbours. News seeps in of the murder of missionaries and violence between blacks and whites. Time to give up, urges the girls' mother. Never, says their father. Jesus will take care of his own.

We are heading inexorably for tragedy. When it comes it is desperately moving, an inevitable sacrifice that, like so much of the story to this point, is symbolic without ever being overstated, the culmination of a richly poetic and often harrowingly beautiful saga that has not faltered for a moment.

We are now about three-quarters of the way through the book. If only Kingsolver could have left it here, trusting her readers to draw their own conclusions. Instead, in a lengthy coda, she over-eggs a near perfect pudding by indulging in great swathes of polemic and filling her characters' mouths with outraged moralising.

The points she makes, about the horrors of colonialism and the obscenity of racism, have been made far more effectively by the substance of what went before. Worse, she undermines them by falling into a kind of guilt- induced reverse racism which is obsessed with skin colour. Thus, Leah hopes to "work my skin to darkness," and notes hopefully that "time erases whiteness altogether".

Identifying the race with the sin, she concludes that Mobutu, black yet oppressive, is really white: "Only the face that shows is black." This is nonsense. It also patronises black people, as does her determination to justify every injustice perpetrated by the Congolese, so that she finds herself making light of female circumcision and the killing of twin babies.

Rachel, whitest and therefore nastiest of the sisters, points out that the King of Abomey slaughtered and enslaved neighbouring tribes. "So," replies Leah, with whom we are clearly meant to identify, "what looks like mass murder to us is probably misinterpreted ritual."

Kingsolver is a great storyteller but she is no philosopher and has a shaky grip on moral relativism. "Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place," we are assured, yet she believes passionately in the absolute wrongness of Western imperialism. Leah wants to make "something right in at least one tiny corner of the vast house of wrongs," to give her father "the simple human relief of knowing you've done wrong". This is confused and contradictory. Read the book for the sheer power of the story. Skip the lectures.