Brilliant. Now, that is no sort of measured critical reaction but it is how I feel I must begin – with a one-word shout of praise for this superb epic novel.
It is a novel predominantly about Africa, or, more precisely, the Congo: about what first the Belgians then the Americans have done to it. Any publisher will tell you that whereas novels about India thrive, those about Africa are ‘difficult’. The market, it seems, isn’t much interested in that continent, except for South Africa. I think Barbara Kingsolver was well aware of this. She knew that only by making the political personal would she succeed in grabbing attention. So she tells her tale in the voices of a mother and her four daughters, ranging in age from five to fifteen when they all arrive in the Congo, from America, in 1959. It is a device that can be bewildering if the voices are not distinct, but here they are so strongly individual there is never any confusion.
But it is a man who dominates the major part of this vast novel, although he is never given his own voice. Nathan Price is the husband of Orleanna and father of Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. He is a Southern Baptist preacher who has come to bring salvation to the heathen of the Congo. He specialises, as one daughter puts it, ‘in the Upper Hand’, and cannot abide losing or backing down. His control over his family is absolute and they all come to hate him, wishing passionately that a tree would fall on him and smash his skull. He believes that a girl who does not marry is ‘veering from God’s plan’ and that educating girls is like filling shoes with water. His favourite weapon against them, apart from actual blows, is the King James Bible, which he interprets as he pleases.
Once settled in a village called Kilanga, the family watch fearfully as their father meets his match. The Congolese refuse to be converted. He wants to baptise them in the river but the river is full of crocodiles and so they see his intention as murderous. His frustration is terrible and so are the circumstances in which his family are living. The heat is appalling, malaria prevalent (not to mention other diseases) and they are pathetically ill-equipped to cope. ‘The Lord will provide’ says Nathan when there is no food to eat and the youngest daughter and her mother are raving with fever. But H e doesn’t. Then they are warned that the country is about to become unstable and are advised to leave while they can, before Independence Day in June 1960. Nathan will not hear of it. A Belgian doctor tries to enlighten him about the political situation but he is not interested in politics and doesn’t understand the danger he and his family are in.
His wife and daughters do. They have all learned very fast, especially the adolescent Adah, twin to Leah , who at birth sustained a brain injury that has left her right side paralysed. She walks with a pronounced limp and though she can talk she is believed not to be able to. Back in America, Adah was graded ‘gifted’, as was her twin. She observes and absorbs everything around her and comes to align herself with the Congolese, whose exploitation is so obvious. Their country is being plundered for its diamonds and rubber, and they receive no benefit. As the Belgian doctor has told her father, missionary work is a great bargain for Belgium but ‘a hell of a way to deliver social services’.
Slowly, but with a cleverly maintained tension, the novel builds up towards crisis point. Independence Day arrives, with Patrice Lumumba taking control. The family fail to appreciate what the consequences will be, how their own country will act to unseat him when its economic interests are threatened. Meanwhile, they face a crisis of a different sort. An army of millions of red ants pours over the village, attempting to eat everything and everyone as it goes. In a tremendously powerful scene, the family rush with the villagers to the river, every inch of skin covered and every orifice filled with the viciously biting ants. It is breaking point for them but still Nathan will not budge.
Escape seems impossible until a deadly snake kills one of the girls. Then, at last, their mother acts. She leads her children away, walking through a jungle teeming with animals who might kill them and through areas suddenly alive with marauding soldiers, who might do the same. But they reach safety.
One daughter elects to go to South Africa with a mercenary pilot, one to stay in the Congo with the Congolese man she is growing to love. The mother and the remaining girl go back to America. And Nathan himself is left to rot in his own righteousness.
The novel might well have ended there, after some five hundred pages, with the main drama over. Instead it projects itself forward and follows the lives of the family in order to show the effects of what has been endured. This is wonderfully satisfying, full of strange twists and turns which I won’t spoil by revealing. Only the mother’s fate is perhaps predictable. She is full of guilt, feeling she has to answer the charge of obeying her husband to the extent of making her children suffer, and full of grief, which she says is as real as rope. She deals with it by turning into a gardener, growing beautiful flowers and nurturing and protecting them, and finds some peace of mind.
Drawing the steel-like threads of her story together, Barbara Kingsolver ends with an indictment of what has been done to Africa in the name of progress but, in reality, out of greed: ‘Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.’ This greed disgusts her but there is no bitterness in her writing to corrode its purpose. On the contrary, this novel breathes a love of the Congo, of its physical beauty, of its people, and the evocation of place is so strong one hardly needs to be told that the author, daughter of public health workers, lived there herself. She says she spent thirty years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to dare to write this book. Never has such patience been more rewarded.