The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful book. And it is a powerful example of the value added to a book by its audio version. It is the story of a family - a father, a mother and four daughters - who move from America to the Congo in the early 1960s. The father, a Baptist missionary, wants to bring the word of Jesus to the people of the village. The women just want to survive. The novel is full of rich descriptions of the plants, animals, food and inhabitants which the family encounter in their new home on the edge of the Congolese jungle. Especially when listened to, it is an immersive and sensual account of place.
The story is told by five alternating voices as the mother and her daughters take turns to speak directly to the reader. All the women have distinctive ways of speaking and they all relate to language in intriguingly different ways. These differences are brilliantly reflected in the audio as the narrator – listed as Robertson Dean (although I have my doubts about this: see * below) – uses different intonation and rhythm for each character. The distinctions made by the audio voice are so strong that when I skip between sections of the book, I can tell which of the five characters is speaking without referring back to the chapter heading introducing them.
But here we come to a problem, one which I blithely skipped over in my previous post about audio books. What should I call the person, in this case, (apparently) Robertson Dean, whose voice I hear in my headphones as I listen to the story? S/he is a reader, but not in the same sense as me, or in the sense of the notion of 'reader' used by literary critics when discussing a text's impact. S/he is also a narrator, but again not in the sense that literary critics use the term: unlike Kingsolver’s five narrative voices, the audio narrator is external to the story, yet also part of it through the voices s/he creates and his or her presence in my head. (We might call this collapsing of outside and inside the audio equivalent of free indirect style). The audio narrator is also a storyteller, in that s/he tells me the story, but as both Kingsolver and her five fictional narrators are also all story tellers, we need a way of distinguishing between them. So what word can I use to describe the work and function of the audio narrator? From now on, and to avoid the kinds of confusion alluded to above, I will use the French word conteur (male) or conteuse (female) – a word meaning variously teller of tales, oral storyteller, out-loud narrator - to refer to the person who has recorded the audio version of a book.
Back to The Poisonwood Bible: the text is particularly suited to being listened to because of its poetry. Adah in particular speaks in rhythmic prose poetry, frequently reversing lines of text or creating long poetic palindromes. Kingsolver plays too with the resonances of the three languages which the family encounter. Their native English becomes increasingly mixed with the French of the Belgian colonizers and the Kituba or Kikongo spoken by the village’s inhabitants. One of the most astonishing benefits of listening to a text rather than reading it is the way its patterns and sounds surround and bewitch you: for days during and after listening to The Poisonwood Bible I have had new words, like maniop, kakakaka, bangala and mongosi scattered through my thoughts and dreams. I cannot write with the poetry of Kingsolver but I can urge my readers to aurally immerse themselves in this powerfully evocative world.
As well as being an epic story of the effects of colonization, the battles for race and gender equality, the dangers of military rule and the difficulties of democracy, The Poisonwood Bible is also a powerful celebration of disability through the story of Adah.
Despite her final, silent ‘h’, Adah is proud of her palindromic status (indeed I did not know about her ‘h’ until I read about the novel on Wikipedia). She calls herself Ada. Like me Ada is a palindrome, and like me, she is asymmetrical. She was born ‘crooked’ (she has hemiplegia), she walks with a limp and she does not speak until adulthood. Indeed, her palindromic status makes her a poet: she reads front-to-back and back-to-front and her world is full of a magic that she loses when she is later ‘cured’. Most people judge Ada by her physical appearance and treat her as a slow and backward child. She is often forgotten or left behind, most notably on the terrible night of the ant invasion. But her voice - which only the reader hears for much of the narrative - is full of wisdom and wit. As an adult, Ada is cured of her limp and begins to walk ‘normally’. Whilst her family and colleagues are delighted by her new able-bodiedness, Ada herself feels like she has become a different, and less interesting person. Her response to her ‘cure’ resonates strongly with my own feelings about disability gain, exemplified for me by the power of the audio book:
I am still Ada but you would hardly know me now without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp. Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split body drag I lost my ability to read in the old way. When I open a book the words sort themselves into narrow minded single file on the page. The mirror image poems erase themselves half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems. Sometimes at night in secret I still limp purposefully around my apartment like Mr Hyde, trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking. Like Jekyll I crave that particular darkness curled up within me. Sometimes it almost comes. The books on the shelf rise up in solid lines of singing colour. The world drops out and its hidden shapes snap forward to meet my eyes. But it never lasts. By morning light the books are all hunched together again with their spines turned out, fossilized, inanimate. No one else misses Ada. Not even Mother. She seems thoroughly pleased to see the crumpled bird she delivered finally straighten out and fly right. ‘But I liked how I was’, I tell her. ‘Oh, Adah, I loved you too, I never thought less of you, but I wanted better for you’. Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western civilization. Expect perfection and revile the missed mark. Adah the poor thing. Hemiplegious, egregious, beseigious. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault. But one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance offstage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray! All better now! Hooray! If you are whole, you will argue, why wouldn’t they rejoice? Don’t the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me? Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you or get the Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be alright. How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? (The Poisonwood Bible chapter 13)
* Robertson Dean is credited with the narration of the audio book but I spent the whole novel convinced I was listening to a female conteuse. Having listened to samples of Dean’s other work on the audible website, I am struggling to believe that he is the conteur of Kingsolver’s work.