This is my first foray into my Booklitzer Challenge.
If this novel is anything to go by, it truly will be a challenge to start and finish each one in it’s turn.
Set in the Belgian Congo, which later became Zaire, which later became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The story follows the Price family from Georgia, USA into the Congo in 1959. They are missionaries. Ill-equipped, self-centred and self-absorbed. They are also odd, dysfunctional and frequently difficult to like. We follow their misadventures through the eyes of Orleanna, the mother and each of her four daughters; Rachel, the eldest and most self-absorbed, Leah and Adah, the twins – one whole, the other ‘slanted’, and Ruth May the baby.
We spend over half of the book watching them struggling with the reality of jungle and village life, as well as their own dysfunctional family life. Then the latter half of the book brings us in jumps through time into the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The family’s story is the focus of the first part of the novel, with the latter half dealing predominantly with issues of the Belgian Congo’s transition to “independence”, international interference with that process and ultimately what each of the Price family live with as a result of being a white person in Africa during a time of change.
Kingsolver has given each character a unique and interesting voice. Rachel is often the only source of light relief in the entire book. She allows a small smirk during what is mostly a dark story with such classic malapropisms as:
The way I see Africa, you don’t have to like it but you sure have to admit it’s out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet!
All I need is to go back home with some dread disease. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed is bad enough, but to be Thyroid Mary on top of it? Oh brother.
“Mr Axelroot,” I said, “I will commiserate your presence on this porch with me but only as a public service to keep the peace in this village.”
And my all-time favourite, speaking about the village children who try to pull her white blonde hair :
But at least I don’t have to be surrounded with little brats jumping up and pulling on my hair all the livelong day. Normally they clamber around me until I feel like Gulliver among the Lepidopterans.
I found the twins the most sympathetic, although it takes a while to warm up to them.
The novel is part history lesson, part psychology of the family. Both stories are dark and filled with actions to hide and run away from.
I struggled with reading this. It has taken over three weeks to make my way through 543 pages. Perhaps I am out of practice reading ‘serious’ literature. Maybe there has been far too much chick lit and murder mysteries on my bedside table.
I found the language of this novel difficult. Some passages were vague, flowery and completely fuzzy in meaning. I would come out the other end of the paragraph wondering what the heck it was all about. Then in contrast there would be wonderful turns of phrase and evocative images drawn in clever, concise word pictures.
I also felt that the book was too long. I think the first half could have been truncated without damaging the picture the author painted. It was only because I had committed to the Booklitzer Challenge that I struggled through to the point (somewhere around page 350) where I actually then wanted to read the remainder of the book. If I had picked this up off the library shelf, it would have gone back after about 50 or so pages.
Having just complained about it, I will give it a huge thumbs up for opening my eyes to the world of central Africa and more importantly the process that many of those nations have gone through to gain independence. Or rather, not quite gained independence. A country in name, but still a slave in economic terms.
Maybe a few more people in a few high places would do well to study the history of political change – and the aftermath of economic and ideological interference.
Suffice it to say, I am now much more interested in the history of this part of the world and will be making an effort to better understand how the current situations of many African countries came to be.
If you are feeling brave or are joining me in the Booklitzer Challenge, borrow this from your library. Otherwise I’d skip it.
BBC Top 200 #125