The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

29 August, 2010

I seem to be lucking out on excellent reading material at the moment. One after the other I’m dazzled and left gaping in astonishment at the scope of the story and the sophistication of prose. I have heard so much about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and snapped it up at a charity shop many, many months ago. But I always seem to take time reading books from my TBR pile. Only when I was given the chance to see Kingsolver at the Southbank Centre did I think of picking up her book to read before the event. Of course, I’m a pretty slow reader so didn’t finish the book, but the first paragraph captivated me and I stayed captivated in the month it took me to finish the book (of course I was reading other books at the same time, I’m not that slow^^). But I didn’t want to hurry the book because I wanted to savour Kingsolver’s prose, which was tight, beautiful and without a single unnecessary word. I just loved everything about The Poisonwood Bible. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t really in the mood to read a novel about Africa and I didn’t really know much about the history of Congo/Zaire. And I’m not such a fan of missionary fiction either. But a trusted friend of mine recommended her book and I had also heard so much about it.

Kingsolver somehow manages to turn a story of a zealous Baptist missionary in the 1960s who heads off to Congo to convert the Congolese to Christianity and save their souls as well as his own, towing a world-weary wife and four young daughters into an epic, yet intimate, tale in which you end up caring deeply about the characters. Nathan Price has wounds of his own from WWII and is afraid of nothing. His wife, Orleanna, is no longer in love with her husband but cannot escape to another life. His four daughters love and fear him at the same time. Nathan is a self-righteous misogynist who believes in his vocation to the detriment of all around him. Yet even though he preaches the love of Jesus, that love is seriously missing from his family life. Kingsolver deftly draws the turmoil, the silent accusations, the bickering in the family at the same time setting the story in the turbulent history of a changing Belgian Congo. The Price family go to Africa to change it but are forever changed by it.

The story is told in short chapters, giving each female family member a distinct voice that is very cleverly done. No one person is perfect. No one person is innocent, except maybe for the youngest child, Ruth May. We see each person as they grow and realise the predicament they are in within their own family and the world and how it affects the choices they make in their lives, even Rachel, the eldest daughter, hating Congo for disrupting her teens and her dream of becoming prom queen. Kingsolver describes her beautifully and you aren’t surprised by the woman she becomes.

We follow the course of Congo’s history and the birth of Zaire, American’s manipulations and betrayal and the predicament Africa is in because of its rich resources. The Poisonwood Bible isn’t just about the Price family and Congo, but about the nature of politics and political change. Reading this book, I felt angry and infinitely sad at the way Congo was played by the Western world, its people inconsequential. Yet wherever there is oppression, there is always revolution, and one is left hoping that things will balance out, even if not straight away.

I was inspired by the character of Anatole Ngemba, the intelligent, wise and passionate Congolese teacher ready to give everything for a fairer, democratic Congo for the Congolese people, ready to stand up for his beliefs and to protect his family, in complete contrast to Nathan Price. What a man.

The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant, heartfelt and passionate love letter to Africa and the problems it faces. Kingsolver manages to combine a family saga, a political treatise and a love story into a wonderful book and I finished the book impressed that she was able to keep my interest engaged in what is a complex, multi-thread narrative. I can’t recommend this enough and have already given my copy to my father, who spent most of his career as an expert on Africa. I hope he likes it as much as I did.

I’ve got The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize 2010, waiting on my TBR pile, and although I’ve got a lot of other titles to read before I get to it, I’ll be looking forward to reacquainting myself with Kingsolver’s beautiful prose.

Another one down for the TBR 2010 Challenge.

21 Responses to “The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver”

  1. leeswammes Says:

    I’m a Kingsolver fan, but this was for me the book I liked least. I do want to re-read it some time, because I honestly don’t remember much about it (just that I didn’t think it was fantastic).

    I read The Lacuna recently (review on my blog) which I thought was very good. Enjoy!

  2. Great review, Sakura. i haven’t read this but I would like to at some point.

  3. Teresa Says:

    I know lots of people love this book (Jenny has defended it passionately to me), but I’m one of maybe three people in the world who didn’t like it much. It started out great, but I think I was bothered by the way the father’s story was resolved. I do, however, agree that Kingsolver is a great writer; I just think I prefer her earlier stuff.

  4. Gavin Says:

    Okay, okay. Now I know I have to read The Poisonwood Bible again. I hope you enjoy The Lacuna. I loved it.

  5. Kjv Bible Says:

    Awesome review!
    I have heard lot about ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ but i thought it was not better than her previous writings. But i think i have to change my mind now.

  6. Melissa Says:

    I’m not a Kingsolver fan and I loved this book. I haven’t liked any of her others, but this one was fantastic.

  7. I’ve found this book quite intimidating to be honest, which is why I’ve not read it yet. Same with The Lacuna.

    Thanks for the review – it does douse some of the intimidation that the Kingsolver’s books hold for me, and I will get down to reading them eventually… wish me luck!

  8. This is one of those books on the “I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet” list…I need to read this!!

  9. I was not the biggest fan of this book but I really feel that had I waited a year or two to read it, I would have definitely appreciated it more.

  10. amymckie Says:

    I really liked this book as well, for all the reasons you mention. Great review!

  11. I remember reading this book on holiday in South Africa and tears rolling down my face at different times. I loved it – but not sure if that was partly because I was reading it in another troubled African country so right book right place. Thank you for reminding me of the story.

  12. chasing bawa Says:

    leeswames: Looking forward to reading your review once I finish The Lacuna. Looking at all the comments here, I’m surprised that there seems to be a mixed reaction to The Poisonwood Bible. Which actually makes it more interesting for me. This is my first Kingsolver book so I’m excited to see that there will be more quality reads waiting for me:)

    The Book Whisperer: Oh you must, boof!

    Teresa: Yes, the father’s story did throw me off a bit (in that it wasn’t really realistic), although I can’t see him having a happy ending. I’d be interested to know which Kingsolver titles you would recommend^^

    Gavin: Hi! I skimmed your review of The Lacuna but will go back and read it when I’ve finished it. I love that period in history so I really want to read it, although there have been some grumbles about it winning the Orange Prize. I’ll just have to see.

    kjv bible: I haven’t read anything else by Kingsolver yet so I can’t compare. Which novel did you prefer?

    Melissa: It seems people are pretty divided regarding this particular book – seems like a love/hate book.

    anothercookiecrumbles: I felt the same too, and if I wasn’t scheduled to see her speak, it would have stayed gathering dust on my shelf. But I’m so glad I dipped into it, because it isn’t scary, or difficult, but surprisingly easy to read. Her writing is smooth and so enchanting. So go on, read it!

    Coffee and a Book Chick: Ha ha, it’s probably because it became too famous! But there’s a reason why!

    reviewsbylola: Hello, why didn’t you like it? And why do you say that you may have liked it better if you’d waited to read it? I’m intrigued…

    amymckie: Thanks Amy!

    Joan Hunter Dunn: I definitely think there is a correlation between the time and place you read a book in and the emotional impact it has on you. That’s why I always feel the need to read books about the places I travel to.

  13. i read The Poisonwood Bible earlier this year and loved it, too! i’m not sure, just yet, but it looks like The Lacuna may be selected as my October Readalong selection, if you’re interested. the poll is still up until the 15th, but The Lacuna definitely has a strong lead right now.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hi! I’ll keep an eye out to see whether it gets selected and may join you all (if time permits!) Love the premise of The Lacuna. Have you read Blood River which is a non-fiction book that is also about The Congo?

      • i hadn’t even heard of it, to be honest. based on the synopsis (that i quickly looked up just this very moment), it sounds wonderful. i will definitely add it to my wishlist.

        i think the only other African or African-inspired books that i’ve read are Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart and Someone Knows My Name. oh, and The Blue Sweater, which is a non-fiction book set in Rwanda, which is also excellent. it’s a subset of books that i’ve just recently started dipping into and so far, it has all been really wonderful reading.

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I haven’t read much African fiction and non-fiction either, but my father keeps recommending books to me. He told me about Blood River after I started telling him about The Poisonwood Bible. I also have Half of a Yellow Sun and Heart of Darkness somewhere but haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

          • heh, Half of a Yellow Sun is the monthly selection for this month, if you want to join in. 🙂 i haven’t started it yet, but i’ve heard really great things.

            Heart of Darkness is a classic text that should be read, i think, but it definitely has its problems. it’s clearly racist and sexist and all things that white men tended to be in those days, but it is very well written.

          • chasing bawa Says:

            That is very tempting, thanks for letting me know. I’ll check your blog for info. I saw a program with Adichie on tv which was very interesting.

            I had a copy of Heart of Darkness but gave it to my dad before reading it. I have heard that it’s pretty controversial but still a classic.

  14. Heather J. Says:

    This is one of my all-time favorite books, the one I recommend to everyone. I’m so glad to see that you enjoyed it as much as I did.

  15. You summed this one up perfectly! It’s on my all-time faves list.

  16. Simon T Says:

    And I enjoyed reading your review now 🙂 Even if it doesn’t change my mind either, it’s lovely to read your enthusiasm.

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