The book is set in the Belgian Congo, 1959, as Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist preacher, arrives with his woefully unprepared family to spread the Word of the Lord in a remote village reachable only by airplane. They’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. They face poisonous snakes, unrelenting poverty and hardship, not to mention opposition and even hostility by the villagers to Nathan’s intransigent brand of Christianity.
As Nathan Price’s wife Orleanna, and three daughters tell their stories in alternating chapters, we watch in helpless horror as their fates become irrevocably entwined with that of the country during three turbulent decades.
Nathan is a monstrous character – a physically and emotionally abusive, misogynistic husband and father. Orleanna’s daily struggles with the effort of keeping her family together in a world that is suddenly devoid of electricity, plumbing and food sure made me appreciate all my household appliances. Rachel, the eldest daughter, is a self-absorbed teenager whose selfish and self centred view of the world remains unchanged despite all that befalls her. Twins Leah and Adah are physically and emotionally separated by Adah’s birth injury, which has rendered her hemiplagic. The humorous observations of the youngest child, five-year-old Ruth May reflect a child’s misunderstanding of the world in which she finds herself. Indeed despite the tragedy and hardships there is also a lot of humour to be found throughout the book particularly in Rachel’s character.
This book is very much a book of two halves. The first follows the story of Nathan’s disastrous attempts to mould the village to his will and the tragic consequences that befall the family as a result. The second half is the fall out of the tragedy and how each of its survivors are marked by it and the choices they make in how to live their lives. I found the characters of the daughters utterly believable and was fascinated by how they grew and changed throughout the book and where their choices led them.
The book is a skilful mix of character portrayal, a driven narrative and terrific historical and background detail. I found reading this book to be an absorbing, intensely moving, richly rewarding and exquisite experience and I would highly recommend it to all.