The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

– Part II –

Last night I felt as if a thousand nsongonyas were crawling over me, biting the flesh of my arms and torso and I woke up to find it was only partially untrue. The red marks on my skin itched and burned with an urgency that was impossible to ignore and I got up from the bed, completely awake in less time that it took to say “African ant”. Ah, the temptation to draw my nails on the skin, but instead I dug my fingers into my arms, kneading the muscles, trying very hard not to scratch. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. That was not a sight I was prepared for at 3:00 in the morning. I saw red, literally. While thoughts of doctors and medicine were beginning to flicker through my wide awake mind, I saw no other alternative but to go back to The Poisonwood Bible and try to see what happened next. Maybe I could get lost in the pages again, forget about the aching need to scratch my skin open. Sleep was as far from me as the invisible moon.

There is a chapter in the book that starts with the invasion of the nsongoyas, the African ants. The author filters this experience through the eyes of the four Price girls which gives a rather unique perspective on things.

While this can be seen as one of “the plagues” in the biblical sense, a more rational explanation is also given. And it makes perfect sense. “Africa has a thousand ways of cleansing itself.” In a land so luxuriant and wild, man seems almost out of place. You can’t tame the land, it is you who has to change in order to survive living there. That is one other lesson the Price family has to learn the hard way.

How can you teach something new without trying to link it with something old? How can you expect people to give up their ancestors’ beliefs in favor of new ones without first trying to understand those beliefs?

Nathan Price tried to have the children in the Kilanga village baptized in the river, not understanding why people were against it. Not understanding why until he found out about the crocodiles. What kind of religion did the white man preach if this new religion required the lives of the children? This is only one of the misunderstandings that are constantly brought to the surface in the novel, and sometimes told from a humorous point of view.

Without the humor this would have been a very hard book to digest. Half of the novel made me want to laugh and the other half, to cry. To write a short review seemed inappropriate and yet after all these words, I still feel I haven’t said enough. I could take each chapter and analyze it, and still feel coming up short. There is an almost palpable richness in the language and the sadness and the longing are weaved together with the different characters that are like threads in this vibrant piece of cloth that is Africa.

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5 Responses to The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

  1. Esa says:

    This novel is one that quietly invades your psyche. The prose is lush and subtle,
    and before you know it, it becomes part of your life.
    The way you take aspects of your own life, and express with your own stylish words,
    the way it influenced you, is very good.

  2. Delia says:

    This novel called for a different type of review. It is so complex and intriguing, that to try and summarize it in the usual way didn’t feel right. It’s a truly amazing book.

  3. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! I think this is one of my favourite reviews of yours – different format, beautiful prose (which is always the case with Delia’s writing), personal anecdotes which make the book come real. I found it interesting to read about the nsongonyas. When I lived in Africa when I was a kid, we lived in a house which was modern in all aspects – it was a gated community with lawns in front of each house, with beautiful roses and trees and luscious green grass. But when the time came, ants raided the house. I don’t know whether they were nsongonyas. They were big, had strong fangs and their bite was terrible and painful. I have never seen ants like that since. When they raided the house, they stayed for atleast two or three days. We used to get eucalyptus leaves and put them in different places in the house, because people said that the strong smell of the eucalyptus leaves will drive away the ants. But I remember the ants always staying for two or three days. We have a lot of ants in India, but they are mostly harmless and they come for a reason – for example, if there is a bottle of sugar which is not properly closed or some sweet foodstuff which is not kept in closed containers. But the African ants didn’t seem to care about such niceties. It looked like they decided one day to raid someone’s house and there they were attacking everyone and everything. I feel nostalgic now when I think about it, but at that time we had to go through a tough experience when we had to live through those ant raids. When I read about nsongonyas in your review, it took me back in time. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Delia says:

      Wow, that must have been tough, living with those ants for three days! I bet they cleaned the house really good!
      Apparently “nsongonya” means “ant” in Congolese. Which African country did you live in?
      I know what you mean about the harmless ants, there are quite a few here as well, they drive me nuts, every time I bake something and leave it out to cool, the lizards and the ants are on high alert. These guys are hungry!
      Thank you for the nice words.

      • Vishy says:

        Interesting to know that ‘tsongonya’ means ant in Congolese 🙂 We lived in Ethiopia.

        I hope you are able to protect your cakes from the ants. During summer it is really tough here, because even if they get a whiff of something they come as an army. Luckily they are not as bad as the African ants and it is easier to make them go away. Lizards are nicer in my place – they rarely attack the foodstuff at home.

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