Friday, June 18, 2010

Rookie Reviews: The Poisonwood Bible

"One has only a life of one's own."

Most I talk to tackled Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible long, long ago, but for those who haven't, and for my own need to process a novel I want only to discuss, a review:

I give Poisonwood an 8.5/10. As with most well-written novels, there are excerpts that reside within me still. Sentences that have woven themselves into the tapestry of my mind. Orleanna's narration at the onset of the section "Exodus" has a profound and moving insight into grief:

As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop.

The substance of grief is not imaginary. it's as real as rope or the absence of air, and like both those things it can kill. My body understood there was no safe place for me to be.

As the last child my mother carried, the baby of the family delayed behind the others by four years, I found myself so tied to Orleanna's final lines about her own youngest daughter:

A mother's body remembers her babies--the folds of soft flesh, the softly furred scalp against her nose. Each child has its own entreaties to body and soul. It's the last one, though, that overtakes you. I can't dare say I loved the others less... She continues on to express the difficulties and frustrations of the first three, the mothering of them all simultaneously and the difference in mothering that last child:

But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after--oh, that's love by a different name. She is the babe you hold in your arms for an hour after she's gone to sleep. If you put her down in the crib, she might wake up changed and fly away. So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She's the one you can't put down.

But there were a few things that didn't work as well for me. For instance, I felt the book to be unbalanced in its pacing. The first year and a half of the narrative is covered in detail, the plot thorough and developed. In the latter half of the book covers a span of 30 plus years in a third of the prose space. It told the story, but I didn't love that aspect of the organization. I found something deeply satisfying in elements of Kinsolver's structuring of the book (i.e. a separation into sections/books--Genesis, Revelation, Exodus; the various narrators and their sequencing and so forth), but again I felt the pacing detracted from the experience.

I think where Kingsolver went wrong in pacing, and in the book, is in her blatant focus on agenda as opposed to the story, the characters in the last third of the book. Kingsolver was quoted in the New York Times as saying,

"If I were to write a nonfiction book about the brief blossoming and destruction of the independence of the Congo, and what the CIA had to do with it, then probably all 85 people who are interested in the subject would read it. Instead I can write a novel that's ostensibly about family and culture and an exotic locale. And it's entertaining, I hope."

Entertaining, it is. Mostly. But the agenda sucks something from the vividness of the book. The lack of subtlety detracts from those moments that really do change minds and educate in the novel. It fails to allow readers to come to their own conclusions. While the prose in the latter half has some of the most elegant of moments--lyrical, poetic loveliness--the agenda/education Kingsolver wants to provide acts to pale what is aesthetic and artistic. Imagine a great boulder in the middle of a canyon: Kingsolver had times when she allowed the flow of her prose to slowly erode that boulder as a stream of water and at others she plowed through it with dynamite. Her boulder is not what offended me. It was the abrupt nature of the explosions.

I still say read The Poisonwood Bible. It will change you. Upon finishing, I downloaded another book set in the Congo (for my heavenly new Kindle--which I'll also review ever so soon): Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Up next:

Some good pool-side reads:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Some Russians:
Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

Some more of Africa:
Heart of Darkness by Conrad

And something for next school year:
Jane Eyre (again!) by Charlotte Bronte

Summer gives the gift of good books!


Libby said...

I love that second quote about the last child. Blair isn't my last (hopefully), but I have those feelings for her right now. She's magical and I'm able to enjoy her in a way that I couldn't with Levi (because I was so stressed out counting poopy diapers and checking ten times an hour to make sure he was breathing regularly).

About your mommy/daughter date post-seriously?! That was so well written, you should send it in to a magazine or something! Kudos to you.

Jen said...

I could read Jane Eyre every year if she didn't have so many competitors.

It has been awhile since I read PB, but I loved it. I didn't find it as heavy handed, but maybe it was because I knew so little about Africa before I read it. I still have a huge residual gratitude for hot running water, a house with doors, windows, walls, and a thousand other small things I took for granted more easily before reading that book.

Love the quotes.

Terresa said...

I really want to read this (Poisonwood Bible). Keep meaning to get around to it. Kinda like Ulysses and Moby Dick. :)

Terresa said...

PS: Are you on Goodreads? Are we friends on there yet? If not, we should be! (I want to see what you're reading on a regular basis, girl!)

silvernic said...

I've started Crime and Punishment 4 times now. I only make it about 100 pages each time. The worst part is, it's a pretty good story up to that point.

Kris said...

I have Karinina someplace if you'd like to borrow it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Kindle. I've been steadfastly avoiding it because I love the way books smell a feel and sound when I turn the page. Is something lost in the experience without that?

Kris said...

Um, and despite spelling it wrong (I'm not Russian) I have, in fact, read KarEnina. :)