US novelist Barbara Kingsolver doesn’t receive an awful amount of publicity despite being an international best-seller. This is perhaps not altogether surprising as she doesn’t fit comfortably in any mould but is very much a mould-breaker, particularly those so beloved of the mainstream media. She is a somewhat anachronistic writer in a positive sense. She writes tightly structured, allegorical novels with a strong social and political commitment, but without the reader feeling that they are being lectured at. Her characters are believable and well-rounded; her stories grip the reader. She has an eloquence of language, a wonderfully ironic sense of humour, a powerful and vividly descriptive style combined with an unfettered imagination, rooted in solid soil. She questions accepted US shibboleths and interrogates lazy thinking and simplistic philosophies. Her essays are particularly illuminating and outspoken, often laced with a winning self-deprecatory humour. She has said, ‘If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.’ And you feel she would be happy to go down this road if she felt her books really made no difference.
She is very much a writer of the left but has largely been able to elude simplistic labelling or categorising. She has written, or collaborated on, 13 books, most of which are novels, but she has also written poetry, short stories and essays. Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for ‘literature of social change’.
At the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990, she was so horrified by the gung-ho militarism gripping the nation that she emigrated temporarily to retain her sanity.
Her books have been widely praised both for their passionate moral commitment and for their evocative writing style. Every one, since Pigs in Heaven, has been on The New York Times bestseller list. Community, economic injustice and cultural difference inform the themes of her work.
Kingsolver was born in Maryland and grew up in Kentucky but spent some of her childhood in Africa where her father was a medical doctor, and it was there that her best-known book, The Poisonwood Bible was set.
Her first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988. Her subsequent books were Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (non-fiction); a short story collection, Homeland and Other Stories (1989); the novels Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Prodigal Summer (2000); a poetry collection, Another America (1992); the essay collections High Tide in Tucson (1995) and Small Wonder: Essays (2002) Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands, prose poetry with the photographs of Annie Griffiths Belt; and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), a description of eating locally. The Poisonwood Bible (1998) was a bestseller that won the National Book Prize of South Africa, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2000, Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton.
In The Bean Trees, the main character acquires a child named Turtle and meets a family of Guatemalan immigrants whose daughter was taken by the government in an effort to force them to speak out about their underground teaching circle. They were forced to escape torture and death in their home country, but are also forced to evade the authorities in the United States. The sequel to The Bean Trees, her 1993 novel Pigs in Heaven, examines the conflicts between individual and community rights, through a story about a Cherokee child adopted out of her tribe. In Animal Dreams, the American sister of the main protagonist is kidnapped by US-back Contras while working to promote sustainable farming in Nicaragua In The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver looks at early post-colonial Africa (The Congo) at the time of Lumumba’s murder and the suppression of a genuine anti-colonial movement. She does this through the eyes of the wife and daughters of a fundamentalist US preacher, charting the way their strongly held beliefs are challenged by the realities of Africa and colonial oppression.
Barbara Kingsolver now lives on a farm in Emory, Virginia with her husband Steven Hopp, their daughter Lily, and her daughter Camille from a previous marriage.
Her latest novel, The Lacuna – her first in nine years, came out this year. See review below.
By Barbara Kingsolver
Pubs. Faber & Faber
Anyone who has read any of Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels, but particularly her classic The Poisonwood Bible about a US missionary family’s confrontation with the brutality of neo-colonial politics in the Congo, will value her work. She is one of North America’s leading social realist novelists. Her most recent work takes the form of a fictional diary written by a young man who worked for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Trotsky during the latter’s exile in Mexico. It provides us with an imagined account of the tempestuous relationship between the trio, against the background of pre-war world politics. All Trotsky’s children and most of his former comrades were bumped off by Stalin and he himself is in constant danger.
Although I find the diary form unnecessary and at times irritating, Kingsolver’s spare but concise prose, laden with evocative imagery always keeps the reader involved. Her witty descriptions of the main protagonists, their daily spats, their passions and tragedies are riveting. Only at the end does she reveal the reason she chose the diary form in a clever twist to the story.
The first half of the book is set entirely in Mexico, up until Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, after which our diary writer and protagonist, Harrison Shepherd returns to the United States, the home of his estranged father, and becomes a successful novelist.
He unwittingly finds himself entangled in the nascent anti-Communist witch-hunt and becomes a victim of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kingsolver chillingly describes how the post-war US state played on people’s fears to gain tighter control; anti-Communist hysteria swept the country, and the lives of many, including our protagonist’s, are destroyed by the witch-hunt. It becomes a cancer infecting the whole of society. It made the US an even more insular society, with a fear of outsiders and with a fixed idea of what the USA is. The present demonisation of Muslims and the way the events of 11 September have been used to whip up a terrorist hysteria are uncomfortably reminiscent of that era.
The title of her book,’ The Lacuna’, refers to many things, but primarily to the holes and gaps that are left out of our historical narratives: for the post-war West Germans the nazi period became a blank and for the USA the genocide against the Indians, the period of slavery and the hysteria of post-war anti-communism all became historical black holes. ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know’, she writes in the novel.
The McCarthy witch hunt is portrayed in all its petty-minded viciousness and the way it penetrated the interstices of a whole of society – it was a ‘Stasi state’ with neighbours spying on neighbours, friends shopping friends and lives destroyed. It is a powerful reminder of that dark period in US history – a period many wish to forget – but also, by implication, a warning, by demonstrating how easily it could happen again with centralised control of the media, advertising agencies running election campaigns and intimate linkage between government and big business.