“The forest eats itself and lives forever.
Image: “The Trees Have Eyes” by Angela Wright
There is magic in these pages. Not the supernatural kind. Not the magical-realism kind. But magic of language and of the TARDIS kind: by some strange sorcery, many huge themes are thoroughly but lightly explored in single volume that is beautiful, harrowing, exciting, tender, occasionally humorous, and very approachable.
“We messengers of goodwill adrift in a sea of mistaken intentions.
”Freedom and Forgiveness
“I was lodged in the heart of darkness… I cowered beside my cage, and though my soul hankered after the mountain, I found... I had no wings.
This is multi-layered, multi-faceted, and multi-narrated. But the many themes all concern the craving for freedom. Freedom of individuals and of nations, from exploitation, superstition, poverty, hunger, disease, bad relationships, and colonial oppressors.
When freedom is offered, there is the difficulty of recognising it and having the courage to accept it. In the final third, the stories flow in separate channels, yet the theme narrows to the idea that freedom requires letting go. Specifically, we must forgive others and ourselves before we can be truly free. Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus, Song of the Three Children, and The Eyes in the Trees
The seven sections are titled after pertinent books of the Bible or Apocrypha.
In 1959, a Baptist minister takes his wife and four daughters (Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth May) from suburban Georgia, USA on a one-year mission to a remote village in the Congo, shortly before independence. The first two-thirds concern their departure, arrival, and year in Kilanga. The remainder follows their diverging lives up to 1986 and beyond. The final section is a slightly superfluous race through a couple of decades.
The narration switches between Orleanna, the now elderly wife/mother looking back, and the four daughters nearer the "now" of that stage of the story. All are independent minded and intelligent, each with a distinctive voice, which develops plausibly with the story (except for the one Kingsolver probably least identifies with, who becomes something of a caricature in middle age). Each illustrates a different Western approach to Africa: meidcal fix, submission/immersion, political reform, colonial paternalism. They could easily just be stereotypes (vicar's wife; the sweet sixteen, caring about cosmetics and fashion; the nature-loving, religious tomboy; the silent, thoughtful, limping observer; the gregarious child), but Kingsolver makes each uniquely believable and engaging, especially mute Adah whose words are those of a sensuous, awe-struck, and non-judgemental poet.
Nathan, whose damaged psyche, guilt, and inflexible beliefs are the trigger for everything, is only ever known through the words of the women he despises. Unfair or karma? Giving him a single chapter would seem tokenistic, and equal billing would unbalance the whole book. I think the way Kingsolver has written it rectifies the imbalance of his long-term power over the women in the story. For Better or Worse
“The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew.
Orleanna is married to a man who does not, and probably never could love her. She is pained that “The thing you love more than this world grew from a devil’s seed”, but loves her very different children regardless. She wrestles with whether and how to leave Nathan, considering the consequences for the girls. With hindsight, she wonders what she was guilty of: complicity, loyalty, stupefaction? But she was a victim, too.
That abusive marriage is beautifully contrasted with a tender, devoted couple. They struggle for mere survival and are often forced apart, sometimes for long periods, but their love and commitment never waver. As with freedom and forgiveness, the difficulty is not merely finding love, but recognising it and then daring to grasp it and cling to it.Themes
I expect different themes dominate, depending on the individual circumstances of each reader. I could write a whole review focusing on any one of these:
• The circle of life
, eating and being eaten, survival. “Alive, nobody matters much in the long run. But dead, some men matter more than others.”
• The butterfly effect
: “The sting of a fly… can launch the end of the world.” And “Every life is different because you passed this way.”
, nurture, how landscape shapes peoples, despite their attempts to shape it.
, original sin (snakes), sins of the Father and consequences - for individuals, but also in terms of colonialism, reparations, freedom.
, judgement and privilege, especially survivor guilt and white privilege. Everyone here is burdened with guilt, mostly of an unnecessary kind or degree. “God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us enough life to punish ourselves.”
• The Bible
, faith (and loss of), religion: life insurance or life sentence; life-jacket or straitjacket? Truth versus intention of the Bible and God.
, (mis)translation, misunderstanding, wordplay (especially Malapropisms (circus-mission for circumcision!) and palindromes), and literalism – or not – in interpreting the Bible.
• Polysemy and poisonwood
. “Mbote… means hello and goodbye, both.” Dundu is a kind of antelope, a particular plant, a hill, or the “price you have to pay”. The words of “baptism” and “to terrify” sound almost the same. And most disastrously for Nathan, bangala means most precious (Jesus), most insufferable – and poisonwood.
- both ways.
, balance, reversal, palindromes, mirrors, ying/yang, pairs, twins.
, liberty, independence – and their cost.
: its importance, and especially the need to understand (rather than merely know). “Our hardest task is teaching people to count on a future.”
• Clash of cultures
: “Africa swallowed the conqueror’s music and sang a new song of her own.” The need to adapt, and the disastrous consequences of not doing so. “It’s like he’s trying to put rubber tires on a horse” but there are no horses in the Congo, “The point I was trying to make was so true there was not even a good way to say it.”
• The role of women
: in their own right, but also as wives and mothers.
• Consumerism, agriculture, colonialism, war, politics, the environment
, watching, eavesdropping (“The Eyes in the Trees”): by God, animals, and fellow humans - alive and dead. One of Rachel’s better Malapropisms is “false-eye dolls”.
• Disability and identity
. Disability may “not be entirely one’s fault
” but one should have the “good manners to act ashamed” in the face of “the arrogance of the able-bodied”. Yet, being “cured” might not be a blessing.
• Change, adaptation, and finding one's true self
- the character development is really well done. “To live is to be marked. To live is to change. To acquire the words of a story.”
• Love, loyalty, sacrifice, hope
• Symbolism, prophesy, foreboding
: Biblical (of course), but others, too, such as the “hope chests” the girls prepare for future marriage: one sees no need, one applies black borders, one does it carefully, and another doesn’t do it at all. Also colonialism of Africa having parallels with individual people.Sensual and Synaesthetic Quotes
• "She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water's skin, as if he were lapping from her hand."
• “Rainy-season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth.”
• “Emily Dickinson: No snikcidy lime
, a contrary name with a sourgreen taste... She liked herself best in darkness, as do I."
• Bright fabrics “worn together in jangling mixtures that ring in my ears”.
• “Rattling words on the page calling my eyes to dance with them.”
• “Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa.”
• “While my husband’s intentions crystallized as rock salt… the Congo breathed behind the curtain of the forest, preparing to roll over us like a river.”
• “All those smells were so loud in my ears.”
• “The silk texture of that cool air, the smell of Congolese earth curling its toes under a thatch of dead grass.”Other Quotes
• "Consecrate myself in the public library."
• “Here, bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace… I enjoy a benign approval… that I have never, ever known in Bethlehem, Georgia.”
• “Sending a girl to college is like pouring water on your shoes.”
• “Whatever happens… Father acts like it’s a movie he’s already seen and we’re just dumb for not knowing how it comes out.”
• “To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points.”
• “The buzzards rise from the leafless billboard tree and flap away like the sound of old black satin dresses beating together.”
• “I am the smooth, elegant black cat who slips from the house as a liquid shadow… With my own narrow shadow for a boat I navigate the streams of moonlight that run between shadow islands.”
• “The radio a live mass of wires oozing from his trunk, a seething congregation of snakes.”
• “Yellow leaves… littering the ground like a carpet rolled out for the approaching footsteps of the end of time.”
• “The sun hung low on the river, seemingly reluctant to enter this strange day. Then it rose redly into the purpled sky, resembling a black eye.”
• “Chasing flames that passed hungrily over the startled grass.”
• “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.”
• Even in solitude, there are “exploding moments” of unexpected “companionship and joy” such as “A kiss of flesh-coloured sunrise while I hung out the washing, a sigh of indigo birds exhaled from the grass.”
• “By [X] I was shattered and assembled, by way of [X] I am delivered not out of my life but through it. Love changes everything.” Inadvertently echoing Nathan’s belief that God delivers us not from suffering, but through it.
• “I recite the Periodic Table… like a prayer; I take my exams as Holy Communion, and the passing of the first semester was a sacrament.”
• “Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us: those are our four ways to exodus, for now.”
For a very different take on the missionary experience, see Michel Faber's interplantary, The Book of Strange New Things
, reviewed HERE
Image source “The Trees Have Eyes” by Angela Wright:http://fineartamerica.com/featured/th...