I re-read a book once in a blue moon. There’s too much out there I haven’t read to waste time going over something twice. Often, if I’ve loved a book, I’ll feel an immediate urge to flick to the beginning and start again immediately, but I keep myself on too tight a leash for such wanton behaviour.
So if I re-read something – klaxon! There must be an exceptionally good reason. And the reason, in this case, is that The Poisonwood Bible is one of the best novels in the world. There, I’ve said it. I shy from the ‘favourite book’ question – I don’t have one favourite book, and to name one is merely to select from my rotating top five or so. But this is one of them. Returning to it after a break of maybe five years, I was delighted to find it as rich, wonderful, terrible, strong and delicate as I’d remembered. This summer, I brought it on holiday for my brother to read, and he and my sister both devoured it, snatching the same copy from each other, in days.
It tells the story of an American missionary family who head to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Told from the perspective of the wife and four daughters, it tracks the eighteen months of their mission in detail and then turns its attention to the impact of this time on the next thirty years’ of the girls’ lives. The sisters have wonderful, distinct characters, which stayed with me blade-sharp in the years since my first pass at the book. Rachel, the eldest, determinedly worldly and selfish, accounts her narrow view of the world with such force of character, and with such frequent use of the wrong words, that she’s fantastic to read. Or does Leah, the goody-two-shoes, desperate to please but with a dawning, powerful sense of humanity and guilt at the white exploitation of the Congo, have the best chapters? Adah, Leah’s crippled twin, is a stunning depiction of a brilliant mind turning in on itself in resentment. And the youngest, Ruth May, sees more in her ignorance than the rest of her family. Too good to choose.
Twisting around the family is the awful, writhing story of the Congo – exploitation, colonialism, a desperate indepedence, corruption. This wider world is perfectly contrasted to the realities of daily African village life – a life of want and need, but increasingly shown as a deeply human, intelligent, true way of being.
You can never step in the same river twice, and I’d say the same for any novel with substance. I found my sympathies this time lay very differently to those of my initial reading. Perhaps, five years older, I see more shades of grey. But this book is a full spectrum of colour in its complexity, and I know that as I continue to read it throughout my life I’ll keep finding more from it. And the writing is peerless – visionary, yet simple. Here’s an account of someone’s desire to keep moving after suffering a bereavement (carelly avoiding spoilers):
“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.”
It’s the sort of book that makes you despair in writing yourself, as you’ll never achieve what Kingsolver does here. And for that same reason, it’s one of those books I’d recommend to anyone who’s willing to read a 600 page book which isn’t a thriller. It has the characters, the plot, the drama, the cultural commentary (and how), the insight, the depth. It’s a joy and a companion. I look forward to the third time around.