Friday, August 31, 2012

THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

When Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna was released in 2009, it was hailed as her masterpiece.  I reviewed it, even raved about it-great characters, sense of place and history-Kingsolver’s ability to pull her reader into her story was unparalleled.  But now that I have gone back and read her 1998 release, The Poisonwood Bible, I have come to realize that there was so much more inside Kingsolver than I saw in The Lacuna, because this is the story of her heart, the novel that her life experience prepared her to write.

This is a story of a family that goes to Africa to bring their faith to the heart of darkness-what they learn, about Africa, God, each other, and themselves.  It is an intimate portrait of what happens to a country in the birth throes of independence, with its wars and factions, all the ugliness and pain that comes before autonomy.  It is a searing indictment of the world’s superpowers and the role they play in aggravating unrest, whether their motive is diamonds or stopping the spread of the communist menace.  

The Congo of the late 1950s was a raw place, inhospitable to its indigenous inhabitants and downright hostile to those who trespassed.  Into this environment comes proud, inflexible evangelical Baptist missionary Nathan Price, dragging his wife and four young daughters along.  Characters are pivotal to the novel, and multiple narrators are used, a technique I usuallydo not like, but which Kingsolver carries off masterfully.  Each of the four daughters narrates, and their voices are so distinct that I never needed to refer back to chapter headings to see who was talking.   Their narration is intimate and driven; it did all those things great writing is supposed to do-I cried at deaths (really, really sobbed), was speechless, angry, anxious, exasperated. 

Because of the way that Kingsolver chooses to narrate the novel, it opens up for the reader various perspectives.  One daughter is very closed minded, rather typical of the time, reflecting the colonial and American mindset still prevalent in a nation striving to break free not only from foreign, but also from local, oppression and dictators.  Another daughter embraces all that Africa has to teach and wants the experience and wants to give back what she has to share to the people around her as well.  Her twin sister is willing to watch from the side, for once in her life not looked upon as a freak, but with quiet acceptance by the community, and goes about trying to stay out of the line of fire within her family.  Through the eyes and ears of the youngest daughter we play the games of children and gain simple insights.

My connection with the characters was especially personal, as I closely identified with the youngest daughter, who is five when the family moves to the Congo; I was four when my own family moved to the Orient.  In addition, I share many personality traits and similar experiences with the daughter Leah, so I felt very connected with her character throughout the story.   However, I do not think that this was the only reason that I rated the novel so highly.  I believe that every novelist has one book in them that their whole life history prepares them for, and I think that for Barbara Kingsolver, this was that book.  When I read The Lacuna I was impressed by her talents as a writer; it was a great story, and she had all the technical things down pat.  This book was very different.  It pulsated with life-with the verdant jungle foliage of Africa and its wildlife and the diversity of her people, not to mention the vast variety of foreigners attracted to her mystery.  Postcolonial stories are never easy tellings, with all their various factions and coups, the so sadly inevitable assassinations of brave political leaders, and the slippery slope balancing of greed and economic prosperity.  Kingsolver managed her tale splendidly through the unlikely narration of four young girls, perhaps because that is how she herself viewed it, growing up as the daughter of medical workers in Africa.  This was the book that I believe her childhood planted in her soul, and it came out as an incredible tour de force.  An absolute five star favorite-this one comes with my highest recommendation.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

MADAME TUSSAUD by Michelle Moran ✰✰✰✰✰

In a world gone crazy, sometimes the key to surviving another day lies in being the hands that form the propaganda better than any other.  For Marie Grosholtz, who would become known to posterity as Madame Tussaud, that meant wax images of whoever held the reigns of power in France during the turbulent years leading up to the French Revolution and throughout the horror of the Reign of Terror.
Marie Grosholtz and her family ran an exhibition of wax models on display in various arrays.  Throughout the Revolution, Marie and her uncle, Curtius, would keep up with the prevailing political climate by changing their tableaux to reflect the latest happenings, not only with new wax figures and backgrounds, but also with posters explaining the newest news from political meetings.  Marie and Curtius were also tasked with other grisly demands by members of the ruling elite, which they dared not refuse.  Luckily for their family, their exhibition had enough renown and they knew people in high enough places in the new government to leverage their fame for their lives and freedom.

Michelle Moran, in her author’s note right at the outset of her novel, makes it very clear that every event included therein occurred and every character really existed.  As you read through various scenes of heartbreak and horror, that note runs through your mind over and over again, and what is novelized becomes very, very real in your imagination as it gains purchase of your emotions.

This novel also taught me a thing or two that I did not know about the Revolution, particularly with regards to the way in which religion was regarded by those who came to power after the abolition of the monarchy, and the appalling treatment of the clergy.  Moran thoroughly covers many things, such as the importance of the cafe societies during the Revolution, the general tenor of life on the street for everyday Parisiennes, the Prussian and Austrian armies building to help, and unrest in the outlaying areas (so many books only talk about Paris when they talk about the Revolution).  I felt the history in the book was thorough and well woven into the story through the tale itself.

Best of all were the characters.  As might be guessed, the cast was massive, but Ms. Moran does a very good job of developing all her main characters and most of her minor ones.  The only character I felt was tossed in a little too late for decent development was Francois Tussaud.  In general, I felt that the ending of the book was a bit too rushed for my taste, but the author’s intent was to focus on the five years immediately surrounding the Revolution, and Francois didn’t come into Marie’s life until the end of the Revolution.  Ms. Moran then gives the reader a quick summation of what happened during the remainder of the main characters’ lives, saving us the need to Google it all ourselves.

This is absolutely five star historical fiction, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the French Revolution.  Even if it is a subject that you have read a good deal about before, I wouldn’t be surprised if you learn something new from Michelle Moran’s prodigious research.