I really like Barbara Kingsolver’s name.
Also, she can write.
I usually wait until I am done with a book before reviewing it, but in this case there is a mystery, so perhaps the review is best before journey’s end. A family with four daughters goes to the depths of the Congo as missionaries in the 1960s, and right off the bat the mother lets us know that not all of them return. In the first hundred pages, we learn that one child is buried in Africa’s damp red soil.
So who will it be? There is platinum blonde Rachel (the only mediocre mind in the family), the unequal twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May, a 5-year-old made of willpower. Their firstborn is Rachel and secondborn is Leah — this family has gotten it all backwards. Nobody has learned the language before showing up in the Congo. The villagers welcome them with a feast of goat stew, to which the father responds by preaching fire and brimstone about exposed breasts. The Congolese, who hold superstitions that cannot be countenanced, come out as compassionate and commonsensical compared to the fuckwittage of the Reverend.
The narrative round-robins amongst the five females of the family, but mostly it swings on a Leah-Adah axis. Leah calls her father Our Father without irony; Adah calls him Our Father with irony.
Mother has figured out how to make bread “by hook or by crook,” she likes to say, but the stove doesn’t really have a proper oven. In fact, it looks less like a stove than a machine hammered together out of some other machine. Rachel says it was part of a locomotive train, but she is famous for making things up out of thin air and stating them in a high, knowing tone.
The stove wasn’t even the worst of our cake troubles. In the powerful humidity the powdered mix got transfigured like Lot’s poor wife who looked back at Gomorrah and got turned to a pillar of salt. On the morning of Rachel’s birthday I found Mother out in the kitchen house with her head in her hands, crying. She picked up the box and banged it hard against the iron stove, just once, to show me. It clanged like a hammer on a bell. Her way of telling a parable is different from my father’s.
Adah, the brain-damaged genius who thinks forwards and backwards for fun:
“Holy Father, bless us and keep us in Thy sight,” the Reverend said. Sight Thy blessed father holy. And all of us with our closed eyes smelled the frangipangi blossoms in the big rectangles of open wall, flowers so sweet they conjure up sin or heaven, depending on which way you are headed. The Reverend towered over the rickety altar, his fiery crew cut bristling like a woodpecker’s cockade. When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge. The “Amen enema,” as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend.