The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Well, after the subway debacle, I was finally reunited with The Poisonwood Bible thanks to the lovely Claire, and I am pleased to report that it really was worth the wait. A rich tapestry of voices exploring the parallel downfall of a Southern Baptist preacher’s family and the governing forces of the Belgian Congo, the book tells the story of Nathan Price, the aforementioned preacher, his wife Orleanna, and their four daughters; Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, as they attempt to live alongside villagers and bring their ‘superior’ ways of life to bear on this ‘backward’ country. The novel is told only from the women of the family’s point of view, and these five narratives together paint a picture of a family woefully unprepared for what would face them, and fatally fractured due to the abusive presence of Nathan and his wife and children’s lack of shared belief in his mission.

The man Orleanna married never made it back from the war; the Nathan Price she knew was destroyed by what he saw and experienced on the battlefield. Wracked with guilt for surviving when his company didn’t, his religion becomes even more extreme and rigid than it was before, and he allows himself no worldly pleasures, surely, in some measure, to atone for the sin he believes himself to have committed. He believes it is God’s will for him to go to the Congo and preach the Gospel, and as such, his family, unwillingly, must follow. Used to the conveniences of mid century urban America, the Prices go on their African adventure armed with nothing but Betty Crocker cake mixes. Nathan, having made no attempt to learn anything about the Congolese people, their customs, culture or languages, sets about imposing his own version of Christianity on the local villagers, and ignores the advice of locals who warn him that his preaching will never get him anywhere with people who live in a world where day to day survival, and not the state of their souls, is paramount. While he sets about trying to convert a people who have no wish, or need, to be converted, his wife and daughters have to deal with the fallout of his decision to move them to an isolated village in the heart of the jungle, with little access to food or clean water, no home comforts and a climate and flora and fauna completely alien to their experience.

Orleanna and her daughters each take turns at narrating their own experiences, and they all have widely different tales to tell. Rachel, the eldest at 16, is shallow and more concerned about her hair than the fate of the people they have come to help. She hates her father and is desperate to go home, seeing clearly that the decision to come to the Congo was an erroneous one, and will only lead to disaster. Leah is 15 at the start of the novel, and the only one of the daughters to share her father’s faith. She longs for his approval and notice, and cannot understand her mother and sisters’ lack of support for their mission. However, it doesn’t take long for the wool to be pulled from her eyes, and as she befriends locals and develops a close relationship with Anatole, the local schoolteacher and her father’s translator, she realises that the simple view she had of missionary work and the ‘ignorance’ of the Congolese couldn’t have been more wrong. Adah, Leah’s twin, was born with a serious brain injury, and as such, only half of her body works properly, causing the other half to be crippled. She made a decision as a child never to speak, and, highly intelligent, she communicates through writing only. She harbours a deep resentment towards her sister and lives in her own world of mirrors and bitterness, having no illusions about her father’s arrogant stupidity. Ruth May, the youngest at 5, demonstrates how Nathan’s version of Christianity confuses and damages those it comes into contact with. Her childish notions of sin and Jesus are touching, and her ability to connect with and understand the young playmates she finds in the village are testament to how true relationships are formed through emphasising the similarities between people rather than attempting to stamp out the differences. Orleanna slowly loses her sanity as the novel progresses, and as Nathan’s behaviour becomes more and more extreme, and the precarious political situation threatens the safety of her and her children, Orleanna rediscovers the daring personality she thought Nathan had destroyed and she becomes determined to thwart his authority.

This is such a dense and action packed novel, filled with so much historical and political and cultural information to ponder on, that it is virtually impossible to provide a succint summary. The main thrust of the novel happens when the political situation in the Congo crumbles and independence is declared, and all of the white missionaries and settlers are advised to leave, but Nathan refuses to allow his family to go to safety. They stay on in their isolated village, but all around them, danger is threatening, and it will eventually be up to the women to take their lives in their own hands in order to get out alive. However, Africa has left an unrelenting mark on all of them, and their experiences will dictate the paths of their futures more profoundly than they ever thought possible when they first boarded a plane from sunny Georgia to the Congo.

For the sheer bravery and ambition of this novel, Barbara Kingsolver gets my respect and admiration. Colonialisation and missionary work are incredibly fraught topics, and her no holds barred portrayal of the audacious, disgusting arrogance of western society in their treatment of the African people is inspired and passionate, perfectly illustrated by Nathan’s misunderstanding of the complexities of the local language, unknowingly using the word for the hated ‘Poisonwood’ plant when he means to refer to Jesus, and as such, rendering his ‘Gospel’ totally ineffective. Nathan is a complex character who is only ever viewed through others’ eyes, but he is a perfectly realised example of the colonist’s blind belief that his ways are the only ways to achieve an enlightened and functioning society. His wife and daughter’s understanding of the local people, and rejection of his own religious beliefs is interesting and adds a gendered complexity to the issue of colonialism; in a sense, the female Prices have been colonised by Nathan, and forced to follow a lifestyle he believes is right for them. As the Congo fights for its own freedom from Belgium, they fight for their freedom from Nathan, and ultimately neither group will be entirely successful, or free from the scars of the damage inflicted upon them by the authorities that held them captive for so long.

My only criticism is that I found the book overlong, and the final section trite. I felt the Price women, now grown old, had become nothing but mouthpieces for Kingsolver’s political views, and this weakened the impact of the novel for me. However, this aspect was certainly not in any way enough to ruin the experience of reading the novel. Profound, thought provoking, intelligent, beautifully written and incredibly atmospheric, the bleeding heart of Africa had completely consumed me by the time I put this down. Having experienced the damage wrought by colonialisation in Africa first hand, it certainly touched a chord already in my heart, and helpfully there is a wonderful bibliography for suggested further reading on the Congo at the back of the book which I know I will be utilising. The wounds inflicted by Western society on the peoples of Africa (and plenty of other countries) are shocking, painful, and heartbreaking, and though I knew all of this before, the reality of it never hit me as strongly as it has done after reading The Poisonwood Bible. This is definitely one of those books everyone should read; don’t let it pass you by.

41 comments

  1. I agree with everything you say so well about this fascinating and powerful book, Rachel. Great summing up, as always, of a complex if over-long novel.

    The parts that stood out for me were the filmic opening and the fate of Ruth, absolutely brilliantly described. I liked the clever use of individual voices instead of a straightforward narrative author’s voice.

    I am certain that you will also love The Lacuna (I think I’ve raved to you about this before). It is truly beautiful and inspired me to find out everything I could about Frida Kahlo.

    1. Thank you Chrissy, I’m glad you enjoyed this so much too.

      Yes, absolutely – there is so much striking description in the novel, and you really do feel surrounded by the jungle because of it. She’s a brilliant writer.

      You have told me how good The Lacuna is before – I will take your advice and pick it up as soon as I can! I feel the same about the Congo now – I want to read everything I can get my hands on. I love it when fiction inspires you to fill in gaps in your knowledge and leads you down paths of intellectual discovery!

  2. I feel as though I have been waiting for your review of The Poisonwood Bible for such a long time Rachel, as we read this in my book group a few years ago and I was the ONLY ONE out of 12 ladies who liked it. Correction – I loved it, they couldn’t stand it! This tells you all you need to know about my book group and why I finally found the courage to leave. Your review makes me want to re-read it. It is indeed a complex, multi-faceted and thought provoking novel and I agree with you shouldn’t let it pass you by. And thanks to Chrissy above for reminding me to move The Lacuna from the groaning book shelf to the teetering To Be Read pile by my bed!

    1. What a compliment, Anne! Well the review would have come sooner if I hadn’t lost my copy of the book…but good things do come to those who wait! How terrible that the rest of your group couldn’t stand it – such a difference in tastes simply cannot be borne. I hope you’ve found a much more conducive one in the meantime. I’m glad you enjoyed the book and found it thought provoking – I can see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I can’t see people reading this and taking nothing of benefit or beauty from it. I too want to read The Lacuna now, though goodness knows when I’ll get around to it!

  3. I read this book a long time ago, when it was fairly new, and I’m afraid my memory of it is mostly negative. I remember liking the descriptions of Africa and being interested in some of the issues she raised, but I also remember feeling like she was whacking me over the head with her opinions. Reading your review, I wonder if my memory is focused on that final section, where she gets too preachy. That can be the trouble with a weak final section—it can leave the reader with a bad taste in her mouth, even if the rest of the book is excellent.

    1. Yes, Teresa, it is very opinionated and I think the last section definitely sours the rest of the book somewhat – I felt like I was being force fed someone else’s political views and it was a bit full on. I would have prefered to have been left with the right amount of information to come to my own conclusions rather than being steered towards one interpretation and one perceived solution. I’m sorry that it left a bitter taste for you – it’s a shame, because overall, I think it is a beautiful, ambitious piece of writing and I’m glad I finally read it.

  4. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found this novel strident and, in some places, obvious. The rigidly-religious white man who doesn’t have a clue how to relate to the natives he is attempting to convert is a character who’s been done to death (sometimes literally) in fiction of the past 50 years, so I didn’t feel that Kingsolver had much new to impart, although I agree that much of her writing is lushious. A similar theme was developed in Peter Matthiessen’s AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD, which was published in the mid-1960s and is about attempts to simultaneously convert the indiginous people of the Brazilian rain forest and run them off of their land (which sits on gold mines). There’s not so much of the female angle in the book, but a character in some ways similar to Orleanna has a mental breakdown when her son dies.

    1. I do see what you mean, Deb, but I haven’t really read much other fiction in this vein and so I didn’t feel that it was hackneyed. I do think that it is very preachy in places, but I enjoyed her take on the dynamics between the Congolese and the Prices and the political machines involved and as a novice with the issues she raises, it really made me think. Her writing and her decision to tell the story through female eyes also add a different angle to other offerings, I think. It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad you could still appreciate the skill of her writing.

  5. That should be “I agree that much of her writing is lush” or “I agree that much of her writing is lucious.” Take your pick.

  6. Well done, Rachel! I couldn’t wait to see what you thought of the book. Now, having seen what you thought, I find myself rethinking my own impressions of The Poisonwood Bible.

    Our book group read it some years ago and had a lively discussion of it. It was a hectic, worrisome time in my life when I read it, so, my impressions weren’t of pleasure in the read. I think sometimes the place we are in life and what is going on affects our reading. That was the case here for me. I’ll have to revisit it sometime. I love her earlier books, The Bean Tree and Pigs in Heaven, but, I read them when the girls were little and they are much lighter reads.

    I am still so angry at Nathan on so many levels he got it so wrong; family, spiritually, ethically . . . Ah, but it is a masterful piece, isn’t it?

    1. Thank you Penny! I’m glad you enjoyed my thoughts.🙂

      It’s interesting when we think back over reading experiences and why we thought differently from others, isn’t it? I definitely agree that the place you’re in when you’re reading has a profound effect on how a book affects you, and it’s a shame that The Poisonwood Bible came into your reading life at a difficult time because it probably wasn’t the sort of topic you needed to read about when things were already chaotic for you.

      Oh yes..Nathan made me furious, but I could also feel sympathy for him too. It is a masterful piece of writing…beautifully done. I look forward to trying more of her work.

      1. Good for you, Rachel. I always admire the sympathy and empathy you express for the less likeable characters you meet in literature. Kingsolver is masterful and has written books so different from each other. I know you are going to enjoy reading more.

  7. At the library where I work there seems to be two camps, the ones who have read this book and loved it or the ones, such as myself, who haven’t been tempted. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of what I am missing, Rachel!

    1. It’s not something I was particularly interested in reading for a long time Darlene, so I can understand the division in camps! I’m glad you enjoyed the description even if you never intend on picking it up!

  8. I would agree that the descent into politics at the end spoils the book. I loved Rachel – the extreme blonde – although not everyone would like her! Sadly, I’ve never read a Kingsolver I liked as much as this one.

    1. Yes, that ending is a bit of a shame. Rachel was a breath of fresh air in the book – I enjoyed her character too. She was honest, at least.

      I’m keen to try other Kingsolvers, but I’m aware that this is supposed to be her best. I have my expectations in check!

  9. I foun this book very interesting to me. Having read it in our english class we discused many of the topics that you touched on. It is such a moving text and I will never forget the impact it had on me as a reader.

  10. I haven’t read this one yet. It sounds like a very complex story. I will look for it at the library. You gave a very enticing review. I recently finished Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. At first, I didn’t like it, but I plowed through it. About halfway through I found that I couldn’t put it down. It had three main story lines that intertwined and there were some little sub-stories. The end left some issues unresolved, but that is the way in real life, isn’t it?

    1. Janet, I hope you get around to reading it soon. I felt that The Poisonwood Bible dragged at points too, but I persevered and I’m glad I did. Such a rewarding read. I’m pleased that Prodigal Summer was worth reading for you – I will get to Kingsolver’s other novels at some point. Life is like that indeed!

  11. Another wonderful review and this time for a book I already have sitting in the TBR bookcase! So no further expense required. Thank you!🙂

    This sounds like a more extreme version of the African section of The Color Purple (which I read last year as part of an Open University literature course) and I’ll be interested to read it. At the moment, I’m reading, on and off, Frankie and Stanky (by Barabra Trapido) set in South Africa, so, unusually for me, as I tend to read European and American books, I’m having quite an AfricaFest!

    Glad you managed to finish the book after the subway drama!🙂

    1. Perfect! I was beginning to feel a *teensy* bit bad!

      To my shame I have never read The Color Purple or Frankie and Stanky but this definitely sounds like a complimentary read – I’m sure you’d really enjoy it.🙂

  12. A great, thoughtful review. I have read this book and had conflicting views about it. No doubt bought about by the feminist in me, why did this woman blindly follow, expose her children to such terrible dangers and too late find her spine? That is the beauty of the story, the finding the answers. Having said this I am glad I read the book, the earlier parts are so well written.
    Maybe as Lifeonthecutoff says, it is more to do with where we are when we read a book. Sometime after reading this book I read The English Passenger which has a similar theme, it is also well written but has a black vein of humour running through it that I appreciated.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I think the skill in Kingsolver’s writing shows in how she makes the novel so thought provoking – it hits a lot of buttons and really makes you stop and consider what you think and how you would react in the same circumstances. I struggled to understand a lot of the characters, but I could also sympathise with them at the same time. Even Nathan, whose voice was never heard, was a well rounded character.

      I’ve seen and heard of English Passengers – I must look that up, thank you!

  13. I had a much harder time with the last 100 pages or so. I found them so overly…everything, that it made it really difficult to get past. But I do admire Kingsolver’s style (I enjoyed her novel The Bean Trees more) and though she crafted each of her characters beautifully. So glad you enjoyed, thanks for a great review!

    1. Yes – me too. I struggled. It was a shame really that it ended in that way. I agree though – her style of writing is wonderful. I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  14. It is such a coincidence that you chose to blog about this book considering we just finished reading it in my English class. We actually had an assessment where we had to come up with questions that target the novel philosophically and sociologically. It is a great read, and I loved the unique narration!

    1. How wonderful – I love that people are getting to read this in English class! What a great assignment – I’m glad you are enjoying it!

  15. My mother and sister HATED this book. They thought it was unbearably depressing and unrelentingly miserable. Whereas for me, I found it sad, but not at all unrelentingly so. There were moments of humor, and the voices were all captured so beautifully I could not help loving it. Also it is where I learned about Patrice Lumumba and how wickedly the international community permitted him to be killed.😦

    1. Oh no! Well I thought it was sad, and I was saddened by it- but I think it’s uplifting at the same time, and there is a lot of benefit to be taken from it. I didn’t really know much about the Congo before I read this so I found it fascinating and I really want to learn more.

  16. Although I hated Nathan, rest of the characters were admirable, even Rachel who is depicted as a typical individual tainted by the society. My favorite character was at first Adah, then Leah as I read more. Who was it that you could most feel connected to, or your favorite?

    1. Hmm, I think I liked Anatole the most, actually! He was a very interesting character whose integrity really touched me. I also really liked Rachel – at least she was honest about who she was and how she felt. She wasn’t trying to be anyone she wasn’t, and though I didn’t agree with her views or choices, I admired her confidence and her guts.

  17. Well despite those slight misgivings you have it seems that I really do need to get my reading hat on and get around to this novel. I dont think I know anyone who hasnt thought, either all of it or most of it, that this is an amazing book that should be read by everyone. Thanks Rachel, and glad you finally got around to reading it again.

    1. Simon, I think this would definitely be your cup of tea. It’s a very good book group text as the opportunities for people to differ in their opinions and thrash out a good argument are plenty!

      Thank you – glad you enjoyed the review and I hope you get around to reading this soon!🙂

  18. I avoided reading this book for many years because I assumed it would be difficult and heart-wrenching and didn’t feel ready for it. And when I finally read it last year I was shocked and how brilliant it is and slightly peeved that I’d left it so long! It’s an immensely readable book and I’m impressed at the scope of Kingsolver’s vision. I’m so glad you liked it:)

    1. Yep, same here. I was surprised by how readable it was too, as I was expecting something very intense. I’ve not read another book like it, and I loved the experience!

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