Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books that I've heard of but usually have no intention of reading whatsoever. But at the MG carnival some time back, I saw a hardcover going for two dollars (worth of coupons, not even real money), I figured that I could afford to risk at least that much.

And wow, the language is the best part of the whole novel. Most of the characters, I realised when I started reflecting on the book, are downright unlikeable. But the power of the language was such that I didn't really notice it until I put the book down. And I took a (fairly) long time to read this, but this was because I didn't want the pleasure of this to end.

Here's an example of what I feel is the language at its best:

"Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know."

Of all the five viewpoints in the book, the only two characters that I quite liked were Orleanna and Ruth May. I felt that Orleanna was quite pitiful in the way she suffered and Ruth May was just so innocent and cute (maybe not so much cute but more precocious) that I really enjoyed reading about her.

But I really think that my enjoyment of the novel suffered by the fact that I'm not American or Congolese. The book is in such a specific time period that it's fairly hard to understand or empathise with the characters. For one thing, I really hated the depiction of Christianity, since the bigoted, culturally intolerant picture of Christianity isn't true. All characters refer to Christianity as a white man's product, but really, Israel is in the Middle East (as is almost all the places mentioned in the Bible) and is probably closer to Africa than America.

The other two interesting characters were Rachel (the oldest) and Leah. Adah was ... I don't know, she feels like an observer (I'm sorry, I'm adding to her victim mentality). But Rachel and Leah are particularly interesting since their a study in opposites. Rachel is seen as the typical brash westerner, insensitive and whatnot. Leah is the one who tries to fit in, the culturally sensitive. But I think there's another reading we can get, particularly from the last part of the book.

Rachel at one point says: "You can't just shashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you back." In a way, she's right. In cultures really radically different from ours, it's impossible for us to expect to be expected as a native. Leah, on the other hand, just wants to hide her whiteness from others and be accepted as a native Congolese, something which sounds like a fairytale to me.

Maybe it's just because I know for sure I'm going to Japan next year, but I'm in a reflective state of mind about nationality. The Japanese are famous for being insular and even though I'm not white, I don't expected to be accepted or treated as a native because I'm not Japanese. I'm excited about going there, but I don't want to harbour unrealistic expectations.

But we're all one family aren't we? So should cultural differences be a factor? Within the family of God, I don't think so. But to be realistic and honest, I'm going to be mixing with people outside the Church (in school and what not), so I should be realistic and expect at least two sets of treatment.

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