Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

A deep and dark novel set in a remote jungle village in Congo (at the time of the country's independence from Belgium in 1960). The story is told by the wife and four daughters of an evangelist minister sent out to convert the locals to Christianity.

The family arrives ignorant of local customs and finds a very, very different way of life to theirs back home in the states. The minister is rigid, ham-fisted, and over bearing (his keeness to baptise people in the crocodile infested river being a case in point). This sets the family apart and ostracises them - eventually leading them on a collision course with the local witch doctor...

The book was chosen by Janet, who commented on the natural division that occurs in the book when the minister is eventually left behind by the rest of the family. She felt that she would have liked this to be the end, feeling that the story stopped and the author took over. There was some sympathy for this point of view.

Everybody enjoyed the book. June liked the (extended) ending and felt she had learnt alot about the plight of Congo/Zaire since independence. Karen brought in an atlas and the group poured over the details: it is a third of the size of the USA, etc.

Marghie turned up and although she hadn't quite finished it was looking forward to doing so. She commented on the backward writing of Adah and wondered if the girls weren't a little bit stereotypical.

I put forward the point that all the family had lost their Christian faith, and that the bible had no relevance to the people of the Congo. In fact I surmised that it was losing relevance in this country. A heated debate followed... Although at home a quick search on Google (sorry to use a computer Janet) produced an article in The Independent 29.6.09 under the heading 'Britain knows little about Bible', stating "The National Biblical Literacy Survey has found that as few as 10 per cent of people understood the main characters in the Bible and their relevance".

Another thought provoking read, entertaining and enlightening in equal measures, although the meeting did remind me of that old saying "don't discuss politics and religion"...

North and South - Innocence Lost,Humanity Found

We discussed Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South in January. As the title indicates, a major theme of the novel is the contrast between the way of life of the industrial north and the agricultural south of England in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

There was a mixed response to the book. June, who selected the book for the group, has read the novel several times and originally choose to read it after viewing the excellent BBC TV series. She likes the way Gaskell weaves philosophy and political and social commentary into the narrative. Many in the group felt the characters were well drawn and the sense of place in the novel was very evocative.
Some of us did not find the novel completely satisfying. The ending seemed a bit weak. I also felt that there was tension between Gaskell's desire to write a novel of ideas and to spin a romantic yarn. The forays into philosophical and religious commentary did not enhance the flow of the story for me. One of the reading group said that the novels of Jane Austen "seem frivolous in comparison"; Yet to me, Austen's social satire seems more finely crafted and piercing because it is not freighted with philosophical discourse and politics. Having said that the strong characters in the book, particularly the women have left an impression on me, as has Gaskell's descriptions of the English countryside.
A member of the group summed the book up in the following phrase "Innocence lost, humanity found" which neatly summarizes the spirit of the book.