‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Friday, January 14, 2011 - Save & Share - 7 Comments

I’ll be honest: I don’t know very much about Africa other than that it is quite hot.  Nor, for that matter, have I read many books set there other than those thrust upon me at university.  I don’t actively dislike Africa as a setting for literature, I just tend to gravitate more towards Victorian and neo-Victorian novels, historical medieval fiction and turn of the century British women’s writing which tend to be located in, well, England.  Most recently, I read Chinua Achebe’s much lauded postcolonial novel Things Fall Apart and didn’t really get on with the story, although I enjoyed the cultural element of the book.  Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I approached The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, but I needn’t have worried.  The writing was exquisitely well balanced, the story was absorbing and the Congo was portrayed as though it were another character rather than merely a place.  I loved it and it was the perfect book with which to begin 2011 (yes, only two weeks late and I’m finally reviewing 2011 books.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family who travel from Georgia to act as missionaries in the Congo in 1959.  The story is told through the eyes of the mother, Orleanna, and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May and the reader experiences everything through them, from day to day trials and tribulations to significant tragedies, from personal hardships to national political upheaval which swept the Congo in the 1960s following its independence.  The story does not end with the conclusion of their time in Africa, but extends beyond this to show the impact that the events that took place there have had on all the family members.  Neither religion nor politics are favourite themes of mine, but the novel is about so much more than this; they provide a framework for what is really an exploration of humanity.

Writers who can successfully assume several voices in one novel and actually make them distinct enough that I can tell who is speaking without having to check the chapter headings impress me immensely, and Barbara Kingsolver has this down to a fine art.  All of the Price women are determinedly individual and, through their differing perspectives, they each reveal different aspects of life in the Congo.  Orleanna’s narratives are always written retrospectively and are filled with a barely restrained hysteria from the very beginning, the reasons for which only become clear towards the end of the book.  Rachel is the eldest and the most resistant to life in the Congo, and her sections are a heartbreaking combination of trying to act and sound grown up while desperately needing to be babied and looked after in this strange land.  Leah, the stronger of the twins, is the most vocal of all the women and adapts best to Congolese ways.  Through her, although the reader still sees the village of Kilanga and its inhabitants from the perspective of a white outsider, it is the perspective of a white outsider who understands and does her best to be assimilated and accepted among the Africans.  Adah is Leah’s physically weaker twin, partially crippled from birth and largely silent.  Her sections of the narrative display a fey intelligence and shrewdness and her observations into the people around her are keen.  Ruth May is the baby of the family, and her parts of the story are filled with a bittersweet innocence, as she observes and reports the situations around her without comprehension of their true meanings or implications.  With these five remarkable women, Kingsolver weaves a tapestry of life in the Congo at this difficult time which had me completely emotionally engaged from beginning to end.

In addition to drawing me in on the levels of character and plot, The Poisonwood Bible is highly technically written as language, both in practice and as a concept, is very important and every single word feels as though it has been carefully chosen for maximum impact.  Rachel, for example, frequently gets words confused in her attempts to sound older than she is and so will often say things that are either not what she means or are just nonsense.  I’m also reasonably sure that she never uses Congolese words or phrases, indicative of her resistance to the culture and her desire to remain separate, whereas the other women all gradually absorb these into their vocabulary.  Adah in particular thrives on these new words and their possible uses as she turns language inside out and upside down in order to extract every possible nuance of meaning from them.  Her use of palindromes and the way that Kingsolver deploys them throughout the book is something that I found particularly interesting.  It is also telling that silent girl is the one who understands language the best, as it draws attention to all the things in this book that go unsaid.  I never thought I’d use these terms outside of university, but Kingsolver makes excellent use of the gap between signifier and signified.

In short, I found this book brilliant on every level, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  Published by Faber andFaber, 2000, pp. 616.  Originally published in 1998.

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7 Responses to “‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver”

Comment from hopeinbrazil
Time January 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I’ve heard so many good things about this book, but I’ve been afraid to give it a try. It’s partly because I’m afraid it will show missionaries in a negative light and partly because it seems pretty heavy. You’ve almost convinced me, though.

Comment from Annie
Time January 15, 2011 at 9:28 am

I loved this book, but then I’m a great fan of Kingsolver’s fiction. However, I have a friend whose PhD is in African Women’s Fiction and she has real problems with the way in which the Congo is depicted. If it wasn’t for the length I would select it for the book club we both belong to so that I could have the chance to talk to her in more detail about what her problems are centred in. Have you read ‘Prodigal Summer’? It is perfect.

Comment from Christina
Time January 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I have had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf for three years now, but have yet to read it. Thanks to your recommendation, it certainly will be coming with me as reading material for my long plane ride back to New England.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 16, 2011 at 11:49 am

Please don’t let that put you off reading it! Although Nathan Price doesn’t come out of the book looking at all good, that’s to do with the man as a character rather than because of his religion. There are other missionaries in the book who are much more successful and are praised for their tolerance, so it’s not at all one sided. The missionary thing is also only one aspect of this book, and it’s absolutely worth reading for the rest of it even if you don’t think you’ll like that part.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

That’s really interesting to hear. As I said, Africa is a very long way outside my areas of comfort and expertise, so it’s not something that would have bothered me, but I would be intrigued to know why it bothered her. I’ve not read anything else by Kingsolver yet, but I’m definitely going to after this. Not for a while though, asI wouldn’t want to get used to her, if that makes any sense.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 16, 2011 at 11:53 am

I’m glad the review was helpful and I hope you enjoy the book. Have a safe flight!

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