Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This was a title that had been on my radar for several years, having seen a friend reading it whilst we were at university. That might give you some idea of how long it takes for me to work through my reading list. I had wavered about whether to read this as my first book by Kingsolver, as some had encouraged me to start where she started. Though as a general rule, I find it easier to get “into” a writer if I start with their best work, rather than their first. An under-appreciated first book may put me off reading more.

The story revolves the Price family. Told through the eyes of the women of the missionary family, we meet them on their arrival from America to the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Each chapter is voiced by one of the women, starting with Orleanna, the wife of Nathan and mother of Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May. Each subsequent chapter is written by one of the girls, roughly sequentially. The timeline stays linear so we don’t get much repetition by seeing the same events from multiple perspectives. While one may narrate, later voices echo and reflect on what has happened, but Kingsolver spares us a retelling.

It is no spoiler to tell you of the family order. Ruth, the eldest, is determined teenager. Not always the most articulate, she knows what she wants and how to get it. Leah and Adah are twins, though due to a problem in the pregnancy, Adah was born disabled. Ruth-May, when we meet her she is just a little girl. This was then a bit of a problem for Kingsolver, as one needs to find an authentic voice, but one which is also readable. If anything Kngsolver does make her slightly over-mature for her age at this stage.

The story is told is several acts, each named after either a book of the bible or the apocrypha. Along with the title of the book, this gives us a flavour of one of the underlying themes. The chief protagonist, though not given a voice, is Nathan Price, a baptist minister who has come to Congo to convert the people to his vision of christianity. We are witness to the immense cultural gap between the family and the lives of those amongst whom they have come to live. Though the younger they are, the better they adapt.

One of the masterstrokes that Kingsolver does is to adapt the voice of each of the narrators of different ages and keep them both distinct and consistent. It is fabulously well-written. The story as it unfolds draws you in, to the extent one might be tempted to check one’s feet for red dust. The stresses and strains that the family are under quickly become evident, with those stresses coming to  head at various junctures.

The unfolding story also reveals to us the motivation that Nathan had for going to the Congo, though I shan’t spoil it for you. The only thing that put me off was the last bit of the book. The whole things comes to a great climax but then the book carries on and we catch up with the characters years later. This felt like an unneeded add-on which merely extended the wordcount for wordcount’s sake. But I would hope that that doesn’t deter you from reading it, as I would strongly encourage you to do so.

There is much to be admired here. The seed of the idea works fantastically well, quite probably because Kingsolver drew on her own experience, with the family being a kind of parallel to her own. Her mastery with words makes it a pleasure to read and her characterisation (with the exception of the ending) lifts it from being a good story into being a great novel.

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