The book I wish I’d written is a novel that has it all: characters who feel more real than the flesh and blood people around me; a gripping story that never lulls, despite its length; an original and vivid setting; a timeless, universal story of Shakespearean stature; and language that is original and effortless. I’m sure that I’m not the only writer with a deep envy for Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
I love reading and writing novels with multiple-narrators. Kingsolver gives us the voices of five characters, all women, who accompany their father and husband, a Baptist missionary, to the Congo in 1959. It is telling that although Nathan Price is not given a point of view, his sermonising, superior voice nevertheless booms through the novel. It is also ironic that through the monologues of his wife and daughters, it is he who is put on trial for dragging his family from their comfortable home in America to a wild, unforgiving continent, which does not seem to want or need the help of their grimly idealistic father.
I love the teenagerishness of the daughters: their moans and mannerisms, their materialism, their struggles to adapt – in particular Rachel, the eldest, who is waking up to her father’s inadequacy and the absurdity of the adult world. She is foiled beautifully by her goody-two-shoes sister, Leah and by Leah’s twin, Adah, who suffers from hemiplegia. Adah can barely speak but her linguistic insights are the most profound of all. As I discovered when writing What Milo Saw, children with disabilities have a huge capacity for compensation – and brilliance. Perhaps most touching is five-year-old Ruth May, who reminds me of Willa in the novel I am writing at the moment. Giving young children their own voice harks back to Dickens: he understood how a little person’s quirky view of the world can breathe life into a narrative. And then there is Orelanna, the mother, who is torn between her loyalty to her tragically flawed husband and a deeper wisdom that warns her that all is not well with her family and their new life.
It is no accident that Kingsolver herself bellyached about writing this book: ‘I did not believe I would ever be writer enough to do it.’ She worried about her skill and about her knowledge of her subject. And then her husband (husbands have a lot to answer for…) said: “Really, you’re scared. You know enough to begin this novel, so just write.” And so she started, ‘the huge novel I wished I could write.’ She dared to write big. That lesson stays with me, as does her wonderful story.