Monday, 7 November 2016

Creating Great Character Voices; Barbara Kingsolver's The Poinsonwood Bible

In the summer of 1959, the Price family carry everything they need on a lumbering plane and fly to the Belgian Congo to take up a missionary post in a village called Kilanga on the Kwilu River.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, (1988), follows three decades of their lives in postcolonial Africa. This, her fourth book, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. 
Barbara Kingsolver spent time in the Congo as a small girl "We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era," she says. For Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible is an “allegory of the captive witness. We've inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by
pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”

Writers talk a lot lately about ‘personal voice’.  Creating the voice of characters (often called 'persona') who feel realistic, authentic and engrossing is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Kingsolver says,… “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people…” It is, she adds, a "powerful craft; there's alchemy…"
Kingsolver has five independent and distinctive voices within this book. Each female member of the family narrates their story in turn. The magic trick Kingsolver achieves as a writer is to make their voices entirely original and independent of each other. When I read the book, this was the remarkable thing that struck me hardest. It was as if Kingsolver truly knew the five women whose stories she will tell.

Nathan Price is a fanatical missionary, with a rigid but simplistic religious code. Although devoted to saving souls, he’s abusive to his wife and daughters.
He first encounters the Poisonwood tree – the bangala – in his garden. Ignoring warnings from locals not to touch the plant, his arms painfully swell. But he has linguistic difficulties with this tree, too. In the native language the word "bangala" can mean "dearly beloved" if spoken slowly. If said fast, it means Poisonwood Tree. Nathan’s unwillingness to learn anything about the language is a symptom of his general cultural arrogance. On a weekly basis, he preaches that Jesus is a poisonwood tree which can cause intense pain and even death. His congregation sniggers, but Kingsolver seems to be saying that in the hands of people like Nathan, religious beliefs are poison, and that his missionary zeal did cause intense pain and even death.

The four daughters in the novel echo my favourite childhood read – Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (also loved by Kingsolver, of course!). In the erstwhile novel, the lives of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth are investigated deeply, especially their relationship with each other and their parents. In The Poisonwood Bible something similar, but darker and more penetrating, is explored
Orleanna Price married Nathan Price when she was seventeen and gave birth to three children in the space of two years. As they are shunted about the missionary world, she loses her spirit. By the time we meet her on the plane to Kilanga, it seems to me she’s entirely a passive vessel for her husband's will – although she hates the Congo.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason...The breathing of monkeys. The glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains...The forest eats itself and lives forever…
Rachel is her first-born daughter. From the extract below, which comes early in the novel, we can tell that Rachel is an unadulterated egomaniac, just as her father is, except she’s focused on the state of her appearance and her comfort, not her soul.
.…Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we set foot. We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned a big old prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove God had ensued us here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people surrounded us – Lordy! – in a chanting broil. Charmed, I’m sure. We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating [sic]bodies. What I should have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads…
Only slightly younger, and very gifted, are the identical twins, Adah and Leah. At birth, the left side of Adah’s body was paralyzed. She limps and is almost speechless, but her mind is acute, and it’s through her voice that a considerable amount of the book’s political scenes are related.
Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about...but mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as ‘Tata Price, you have trop de jolies filles – too many pretty daughters…Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: Kulwela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife. 
‘‘One of the girls, you mean,’ Mother said. She pulled on the nape of  Nelson’s T-shirt, extracting him from the stove so she might speak to him face to face. ‘You’re saying Tata Ddu wants to marry one of my daughters.’…
Compare this voice with that of  Adah’s healthy twin sister, Leah…
I prefer to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, burning the trash and weeding, while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such. Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father would bring over seeds in his pockets; Kentucky Wonder beans, croookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. We planned to make a demonstration garden from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle; an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes…
Ruth May is the youngest of the sisters, nine years junior to the twins. She is an impish child,  easily able to get into trouble. Kingsolver concentrates on penetrating the little girl’s mind, so that, although her thoughts are lisping and playful, we can glean a lot of the story's subtleties from her voice…Sometimes you just want to lay on down and look at the whole world sideways. Mama and I do. It feels nice. If I put my hed on her, the sideways world moves up and down. She goes; hth-huh. hth-huh. She’s soft on her tummy and the bosoms part…Sometimes I tell her; Mommy Mommy. I just say that. Father isn’t listening so I can say that...
Each voice has a further distinctive aspect. Ruth May invents her own language, Adah can read backward, Leah uses language to mimic her hero father, and Rachel consistently and unapologetically ‘malaprops’ her words.
When I opened the book and been to read, I imagined this would be a story about four young girls battling against their father’s growing madness and the alien world they’ve been thrust into – Little Women for the 21st century. But the story moves on and on…Ruth May dies from a snake bite and Orleanna finally musters the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters, although for the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt. Meanwhile, her surviving daughters flourish, in various ways.                                                                                                                      Although idealistic Leah worshiped her father, unlike him she is intelligent and compassionate. The realities of the Congo wears away her strong Christian faith. She marries a local man and throws herself into the fight for African independence. Rachel, you won’t be surprised to hear, chases  her dream of wealth and beauty. My favourite sister, Adah, has a surprising outcome, turning her life around after facing death one night. The three girls go in very different directions, but each of them remains haunted by their early life in Kilanga.
Go to Kingsolver's website to find out about her other books

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