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Neglecting a Family While Saving Heathen Souls

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Barbara Kingsolver’s sweeping novel about the Belgian Congo, “The Poisonwood Bible,” a Baptist minister leaves his comfortable home in Georgia in 1959 to bring the word of Jesus to heathens who he just knows need to be saved. (Brilliance Audio, unabridged fiction, 10 cassettes, 16 hours, $44.95, read by Dean Robertson.)

Though he refuses to accept it, preacher Nathan Price has no effect on the Congo, but it has a mighty effect upon him, his wife and their four daughters. The first half of this ambitious and intriguing audio focuses on the effect of Price’s arrogance and authoritativeness upon his family.

Interestingly, we hear the story only from the five females who are dragged into the jungle wearing inappropriate clothes and bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes. There is not enough to eat, the plants are poisonous and the snakes venomous. Most of the locals are indifferent to both Nathan’s fire-breathing sermons and the rebels in the jungle hoping to win freedom for the Congolese from the Belgians. The women must cope with the day-to-day grind as Nathan busies himself saving souls who do not actually wish to be saved.

Kingsolver writes with a different voice for each character and does so with insight and wit. The oldest sister is a self-involved, typical American teen, whose malapropisms are a hoot. She has students memorizing “French congregations,” for example. When her father wants to leave the Congo against her wishes, she decries the “tapestry of justice.”

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More intriguing are the teenage twins, who are brilliant but deeply affected by the emotional and physical scarring of the one born disabled. Adah, the damaged twin, is a haunting creation as she sees the world in an unconventional and backward manner that is as refreshing as it is revealing. We watch these women adapt, mature and overcome, because that which does not kill them makes them fiercer. Kingsolver uses her characters and her story to propound her political views of the Congo, which begin to feel bombastic as the second half of the novel unwinds.

Still, she is perceptive, humorous, ironic and exacting as fanatical fundamentalism and crushing colonialism collide in the jungle. Though Dean Robertson is a teensy bit rough around the edges, she is such a compelling narrator we can always count on her to successfully propel a story. She does not change her voice, but alters her delivery and her attitude for each of the girls and their overwhelmed mother.

Robertson has a genuine Southern drawl that she can caress and draw out, or pull back and refine. A reader with energy and the ability to understand irony, she effortlessly conveys the vacuousness of a teen who would rather worry about her sweater sets than malaria. She can also make us hear the deep, deep pain of a woman who is watching her children suffer.

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Less successful is the latest novel from the creator of the popular series featuring forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta. In “Southern Cross,” Patricia Cornwell reunites Chief Judy Hammer, Deputy Virginia West and reporter-turned-cop Andy Brazil. They chased a serial killer in Georgia in “Hornet’s Nest” and now combat gang violence in Richmond, Va. (Putnam Berkley Audio, unabridged fiction, eight cassettes, 12 hours and 30 minutes, $39.95, read by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis. Also available abridged, four cassettes, six hours, $24.95, also read by McMurdo-Wallis.)

Unfortunately, the plot is not only weak, it is disjointed. This is most enjoyable as a humorous satire of Southern politics and Southern eccentrics, computer frustrations and police public relations. As a crime caper depicting gang violence, it disappoints. The focus is split and Cornwell’s tendency to anthropomorphize pets is grating.

With her deep voice and authoritative style, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis brings this novel alive. She ably alters her voice for the different characters, creating sultry sexpots, no-nonsense women and scared teenage boys. She even deepens her pitch for men. She may not fool us into believing she is a man, but the male characters do sound different from the women. Most importantly, she conjures up a unique vocal trait for each character, so the listener has no trouble identifying them.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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For more reviews, read Book Review

* This Sunday: We look at the lives of financier J.P. Morgan, revolutionary Pancho Villa, poet Lord Byron, filmmaker Francois Truffaut and mystery writer Ross Macdonald.


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