Friday, October 04, 2013

The Bean Trees [and The Poisonwood Bible]

While staying at a friend's house I came across a book called The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I'd heard of her as the author of The Poisonwood Bible, a book I haven't read, but that was all. Anyway it turns out that the Bean Trees is her first book and probably rather different to the later more serious Poisonwood.  By all accounts Bean Trees is a good deal funnier, I suspect, from what I know of the story of the late book. Kingsolver's wit and humorous way with words sparks off every page. In fact the humour is pretty much what holds things in place, because there's only a minimal story, and there are times, especially later in the book, when it feels as though she's being quite didactic in telling us what she knows about the Arizona countryside, even though it may be interesting.  Her characters are strongly written, and often quite quirky, but they don't really get a lot to do apart from having conversations and picnics with each other. The attraction between Taylor, the young woman who finds herself landed with an unwanted child in the middle of the Oklahoma flatlands, and the married school teacher from Guatemala, barely smoulders; there's little real suspense in regard to the subplot about rescuing illegal immigrants, and the child abuse motif that lingers in the background isn't deeply explored. Indeed the climax of the book is more of a way of resolving Taylor's issues with caring for the child she's had foisted on her than with any concerns about whether the couple from Guatamala will get away from the authorities, or whether she'll be allowed to keep the child.

For all that, the book is very readable, and Kingsolver's eye on the world is unique and regularly shows us familiar things in startling ways. Her two main characters (the other one is a married woman whose husband has left and who is always on the verge of divorce but never quite getting there) both have a bit of a learning trajectory, but there's not much in the plot itself to push them towards real change. They somehow manage it on their own, as it were.

Lots of homespun wisdom - some of it hilariously suspect - lots of grumpy old women, some weird children, some strange locations. Not quite enough for a book to have real impact but certainly a book with a particular voice that's worth hearing.

I've now read The Poisonwood Bible. Here's the review I posted on Goodreads in April 2014

This is a brilliant book about a clash of cultures, spiritual viewpoints and personalities...until around page 450 (out of 600) when it begins to sashay into a book about how awful American culture is and how interfering American politicians are in world affairs. Those two last aspects have a degree of truth, but they aren't what the book is truly about. They've been implied throughout, but when they take centre stage they distract from what is going on in the real lives of the characters. I found the last hundred pages went nowhere for me: the chief antagonist of the book, the father, had disappeared from the centre of the story, and was replaced by invisible male antagonists at a distance, both Congolese and American. I finished up skimming those hundred pages because they merely detailed more of the three girls' lives and took the story nowhere.

There are many wonderful things in the book: the different voices of the five females, the detail of Congolese village life and the Congo itself, the host of minor characters. The father, who, unlike the five females, never gets to speak for himself but is only seen through the women's eyes, still manages to be a huge force to be reckoned with in the story. Once he's gone, however, the story has no centre anymore. Like him or not, (and he's almost impossible to like) he is the character against whom the women play out their lives, since they don't particularly get on with each other. After the big climax around page 400 or so, he remains offstage, and we only hear about him in passing. His death (still offstage) while it may be justifiable in terms of 'balance,' seems contrived. 

Christian mission plays a huge part in the story (and then this aspect gets lost as the politics take over). I've recently been re-reading Vincent Donovan's Christianity Rediscovered, a book about a Catholic priest who has to rethink his own cultural viewpoints in order to convey the essence of the Gospel to the Masai, and does so successfully. The father in The Poisonwood Bible, for all his vitality, never understands that his cultural view of Christianity is making him miss the mark in trying to convey Jesus to the Congolese. There are other Christians in the story who have better managed to integrate Christianity into the Congolese culture, though they play a relatively minor role. Kingsolver writes rather ambiguously about the Christian aspect of the story: we can see that the father hasn't got it right, but only occasionally do other members of his family get it right themselves.

This is certainly a book that keeps you thinking about it, so I 
guess that makes it successful!
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