I read this book a few years ago and loved it so this was my second time reading this, this time for our book club. I was concerned that I would not enjoy it as much as before, but there was no problem it was fantastic even the second time around.
This novel tells the story of fanatical American missionary Nathan Price who takes his wife and four daughters to convert the people of the Congo in 1959. The story is told from the different perspectives of all the women. Oleanna writing in hindsight, is guilt ridden for taking her daughters to the Congo, Rachel a vacuous blonde who is full of very funny observations and malapropisms (the Christian system of marriage is ‘monotony’), the twins Leah and Adah, Leah is bolshy and completely in awe of her father, whilst Adah is a lame outside who constantly invents palindromes and the youngest, lovely Ruth May who is only five. Each of the daughters has a distinctive voice and I think everyone reading this will choose a favourite, mine was Adah.
The story straightaway alerts us to the fact that something ominous is going to happen, the women are described as resembling doomed blossoms. They arrive in the village of Kilanga in the context of the Congo’s struggle for independence from the Belgians. This novel highlights the problems of post-colonialism and the Belgians and USA’s horrific intervention in the transition towards independence and their treatment of the new Congolese leader Lumumba. The west is described as someone who has “walked out of Africa as a husband quits a wife, leaving her naked body curled around the emptied out mine of her womb”. Someone in the book club questioned whether the book has an optimistic ending for Africa and I am not really sure.
Nathan is obsessed with baptising the villagers and his lack of fluency with the local language means that he tries to appeal to them by saying “Jesus is bangala” which is supposed to mean Jesus is precious but he actually ends up saying Jesus is poisonwood, which obviously isn’t hugely appealing to the people.
The later section of the novel which deals with the girls as adults is less interesting and didn’t really seem necessary but that aside this book is amazing, read it now.
There is a fantastic podcast/video with Kingsolver talking about the book which is definitely worth listening to once you have read it.