Fathers And Daughters

A complex and moving story of an American family in post-colonial Africa.

Barbara Kingsolver’s "The Poisonwood Bible", to put it in a single word, is different. It tells us of postcolonial Africa, of the Congo’s fight for independence and of one particular family, trapped in the whirlpool of political tension and strife, by the one man who should have shielded them from trouble of any sort. The story unfolds through the eyes and the perspectives of the lady of the house, Orleanna Price, and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May.

Dragged from the comforts of the easygoing American way of life they were so accustomed to, the Price family finds itself in Belgian Congo, following (albeit very unwillingly) their father, the reverend Nathan Price, to spread the word of the lord. Nathan Price was a Baptist with a mission, and he wouldn’t rest until he had succeeded. Not once did he stop to think of his family, who found themselves in a land where there were no roads, no permanent houses, where disease and extreme poverty ravaged every home, and where superstitions reigned supreme. Dumped on foreign soil, where they were regarded almost as museum curios by virtue of their white skin, the girls and their mother were forced to adapt to the climate, the language and the food...which by itself may not seem much of a calamity, but if one considers where they came from and the fact that they were not used to eating monkeys or looking out for poisonous snakes at all times, one sees the kind of willpower such a step would have required.

And so the girls grow, in filth and ignorance and squalor, with a harsh evangelical father to watch their every move, and a mother who couldn’t hold her own against him. The story takes a sharp and dramatic turn when Congo declares her independence, and her first elected Prime Minister is assassinated. From here on, the novel traces the tragic undoing of the Price family, and their struggle to live life on their own terms, away from their domineering father. Over the course of three decades, it charts the lives of the sisters, and their mother, as they pick up the pieces of their lives, only to reconstruct it onto something worth living for. Some of them stay on in Africa, others leave; but every one of them emerges self-willed and independent, having seen life and suffered losses such as few people ever would, especially not the people who they had left in Georgia long ago, when they had first reached Africa.

The novel is daring, and the manner used by the author of letting us see the unfolding of events through the minds of the sisters and Orleanna Price, is an extremely effective one, for each woman is so distinctly unlike the other that it’s like looking into five different stories all at once, which merge into one another effortlessly. Each character is brought out clearly, which is possibly the author’s greatest triumph, for in a novel where all five narrators are talking about the same things, and feeling by and large the same way, there is a risk that the characters lose their individual flavour. However I felt that the character that has been brought out the best, is that of the father, Nathan Price. Feelings for him range from disgust to fear to pity...a very complex and interesting man.

Though the book tends to drag occasionally and is a tad lengthier than it could have been, Kingsolver brings out the myriad emotions and experiences of the family remarkably well, and employs the struggle for independence and political instability as a superb backdrop for the novel. The way in which she uses words, and her vivid descriptions too, are commendable. If you enjoyed the timeless "Gone With The Wind", chances are you’ll like this one too.

This article was first published on14 May 2001.