by Barbara Kingsolver, 543 pages
Outstanding literature, a major cultural achievement . Wrestles with extremely complicated issues, and does so with intellectual accomplishment, moral vigor and dramatic effectiveness. This work was one I tried to read five years ago, based on recomendations emerging from an undergraduate class. For whatever reason I found the prose and the opening insufficiently engaging, and never got past the first fiteen pages. The continual transition between different character points of view was the more burdensome thing, I believe. It’s been on my backburner for awhile though, and I brought it alone for a trip to ensure I’d finally get to it, and read it on the plane. I’m certainly glad I did.
The setup is an American missionary family that goes to the Congo in 1960 to preach Christianity among the native. The driving force behind this move is the father/preacher, but the story is told from the diverse viewpoints of his wife and daughters. The story unfolds for the different attitudes and behaviors of these girls and woman across 1960, the way they develop different stances on race, religion, politics and personality. One dies, several leave for the United States, one joins emotionally and ideologically with the African community, one becomes an ultimate colonizer. The last fourth of the book shows the next thirty years of their lives in accelerated pace. The main dramatic energy is the way different expectations get built on, reversed or tangled. The most fascinating thing is watching one of the girls grow into a more multi-faceted, understanding, empathic and politically engaged individual. It’s ultimately quite inspiring, even as it occurs amongst the backdrop of the very bleak things that happen in the Congo, particularly after the CIA assassination, coup and collapse of autonomous nationalism.
As an account it is fairy preachy, making the central point clear often and including a number of direct followthrough points on the basic evils done by the United States to Africa, and in particular representing the CIA figure in the novel as wholly loathsome. This element may well be alienating, but I don’t count this as a flaw in the novel. First and most fundamentally, Some Anvils Need to be Dropped. It’s an undereported aspect of recent history that’s directly linked to core ongoing politics, and it’s valuable to have the issue of colonialism and post-colonialism aired so explicitly. As well, the moral tone ofthe word never interfers with the development of the story, rather it functions as a central element in the growth of the main characters. As relevant to the development of critique as some of the characters "getting it" is the others who don’t, the lies and half-truths they choose to believe and the way this connects them with the more exploitative elements in the world.
It’s one of the rarest of books, a story that provides an extremely personal and intimately subjective account, and also a magnificent insight into global processes. The actual story as depicted is very specific to the immediate regional context and the character of the individuals, but it carries a lot of parallels and resonance with forces of capitalism, race, gender and identity. Perhaps the best description of it, and the greatest praise, that I can offer is that it’s a book with a lot to say. For all its length there doesn’t feel like anything wasted in here. Some scenes definitely stand out as more dramatic and emotionally impacting than others, but the other elements aren’t in there as pading, and definitely enhance the larger experience. There were several points in reading Kingsolver’s novel where, juding by narrative energy rather than my awareness of the physical book, it seemed that events were about to conclude, that the main story was over. Instead it kept going, and added a level of complexity, emotional energy and plot engagement that made it into an even better final book.
The prose is very effective, the characterization beautiful, the message resounding, the plot very good. It manages to make creative use of time to great effect, showing first a focus in on a single year, then tracing the longterm fallout across decades of different people’s experiences. It’s similar to the approach I found so impacting in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, but even more powerful.
Better than: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Also better than: Lavinia by Ursula K. Leguin