I wanted to read this book as it is about the Congo, a place I have read about quite a lot. It is a pretty brilliant piece of imaginative writing.
The story is about a family that moves to the Congo in the 1950s. The father is a slightly stereotypical crazy Baptist preacher but the novel is structured around the first person accounts of his daughters and wife. You never hear his voice directly.
The beauty of the book lies in the depth of its description of how families work, especially in times of astonishing stress and difficulty. That is really the writer’s greatest achievement, although I see from the introduction that she has never actually visited the Congo and the way she describes it is extremely convincing so I admire immensely her ability to write from her imagination.
It is also a novel about race, culture and feminism. As I read the novel, my faith in the characterisation of the narrators occasionally wavered but by the end I was completely convinced. The psychological depth of the characters is rich and believable.
You could ask whether the father figure is really no more than a cypher, a means by which the narrating characters are brought together. His irrationality and inhumanity in the name of religion are a little bit caricature. But aren’t some families like that? You could also ask whether some of the events are wholly plausible – the invasion of the driver ants, for example. But people do live dramatic lives and this charts beautifully the course of such a life for a group of disparate personalities bound together simply by blood and experience.
The novel’s deep description and analysis of relationships made me wonder whether my own life is somehow superficial. Even if I could write, I can’t imagine picking over the details and motivations of my own family in anything like the same detail. Which in turn made me wonder whether the writer is describing something true and real about human experience or something that is essentially an artifice, a clever and brilliant representation of something actually beyond our capacity to codify in our own lives.
But apart from that solipsistic interlude, I enjoyed this book a lot and it reminded me, again, of just what an extraordinary and extraordinarily troubled place the Congo is.