Is the measure of a good book in its story or its telling? Truly great books will have both, but sometimes one is enough.
I’m not sure if The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, is truly well written (although, it is definitely clever). I’ve heard opinions (from people I respect) on both sides of the spectrum. But I do know that the words of the story relentlessly hit on my heart like the heavy, pounding raindrops of a summer storm on a tin roof.
This story of a missionary family’s tragic mis-adventure in the Belgian Congo of 1959 is told from the point of view of the five women in the family. I can relate to all of the roles: wife, mother, daughter, sister. Perhaps this made the book all the more bitter and sweet. But, even my husband (who is not a wife, mother, daughter or sister!), was affected by the story (see his review here).
I read TPB several months after reading Fieldwork (by Mischa Berlinski). Fieldwork unravels the story of an anthropologist, a multi-generation missionary family, a journalist, and a murder.
I read Fieldwork almost non-stop. I could not put it down. It tore through my soul. I read The Poisonwood Bible in daily fits and spurts. But its story haunted me through the hours in between turning the pages.
I think these two books should be required reading for people preparing to work overseas (particularly as missionaries or NGO workers). They are not instruction manuals or glowing tales of missionary faith. Neither are they outright condemnations. But both books reveal the heart of darkness that is sometimes carried into a place by the very people seeking to bring light. And that is what both of these books capture so well: the knife-edge between darkness and light, life and death, hate and love, understanding and ignorance, arrogance and humility.
The characters and situations–in both books–are vehicles for the larger issues the authors illuminate. Do not be distracted by the (sometimes) strong caricatures and miss the emotional workout that the authors ask the reader to commit to.