A very ambitious book, indeed, in which Kingsolver tells the story from five different viewpoints, five unique voices. And she tackles Africa, attempting to tell a story about the Congo/Zaire that will relate to us, her First-World readers. It's ironic, then, that Kingsolver, while trying to write a book on Africa, actually writes about book about the United States.
The first part of "The Poisonwood Bible" is an interesting narrative as told by the four Price daughters of a Baptist missionary family adapting - or failing to adapt - to the culture and climate of a Congolese jungle village in the 1960s. The four girls each have a distinct voice, representing four distinct types - from Rachel, the spoiled American teenager, to Leah, the intelligent achiever who ends up "going native."
But the book quickly turns political. Kingsolver has the Prices in the Congo through independence, Lumumba's election and subsequent assassination financed by the CIA, and the unpleasant aftermath of civil war and chaos. The different girls soon devolve into political allegories. Rachel's spoiled teen act devolves into the racist, ignorant pro-American persona that is ultimately responsible in Kingsolver's world for the subjugation of African democracy and prosperity. Leah, the achiever, remains in Africa and becomes a kind of heroic figure of opposition to American power and culture, renouncing material comforts to ally herself with the New Africa. Kingsolver's tone gets preachy, and the complex problems of the African subcontinent get simplified into a single palatable message: the West is keeping Africa down.
I don't doubt Kingsolver's resolve, her beliefs, and I'm not questioning her research or sources one bit. Her depiction of Africa feels real. But like so many other books about Africa written by outsiders ("A Bend in the River," "Heart of Darkness," etc.), "The Poisonwood Bible" really describes and characterizes its author and her culture more than it does Africa. In this book, we are treated to a distinctly American depiction of travel, of prosperity, and of culture.
In this book, Kingsolver implies through the voice of Leah, that Africa was once a primal Arcadia until European explorers "discovered" the continent and enslaved its people and apportioned the land into colonies. African's inability to adapt to Western culture and technology - according to Kingsolver -- has to do with the intractability of the land, and the belief system created by thousands of years' of tribal tradition and culture. Westerners only sully or contaminate Africa's ideals and "natural" systems of government. Ideas shared, ironically, by the original European visitors to Africa.
Also, Kingsolver indicts America's over-prosperous culture. Leah upon returning to Georgia after living in Africa, finds her cheap student housing overly oppressive. So much so that she has to move back to Africa as soon as possible. Which is a truly typical American reaction to prosperity: what other culture's people would spurn comfort and plenty and return to poverty and misery - for an idea? America is chock full of such self-abnegating or dangerous ideals and past-times: vegetarianism, eating disorders, weight-loss programs, Buddhist retreats, long-distance hikers, extreme sports.
I don't wish to excoriate Kingsolver for these ideals. This naïve optimism is the main reason I love my country, the United States. This belief that there is an ideal to aspire to, to sacrifice for. That there can be a perfect society built on Earth. That someone should, in fact, try to do so.
However, at times her book deals clumsily with these issues. Characters lose their complexity when they begin to stand for an ideal. Rachel, for example, becomes uniformly bad, and loses all trace of humanity. She's easy to hate. As such, she may be an effective tool to denigrate a political view, a propaganda tool, but she ceases to be a quality literary device. She tells us nothing about the human character.
Though the writing is at times brilliant, and the first part of the book was engrossing, overall "The Poisonwood Bible" succumbs to its flaws.