Review: The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

I won’t lie, it took me a long time to read this book.   Unfolding over 600 pages and spanning over 30 years, this is a novel that demands your time and your full attention.  Trust me, there were plenty of other tempting distractions.  But seeing as my religion forbids me from leaving books half-read, I  sucked it up and got down to business.  But, hey! Kudos to perseverance because The Poisonwood Bible is worth it.

In 1959, Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptists (and a shocking tyrant) uproots his family from their home in Georgia and takes his mission to a tiny village in the Belgian Congo.  Told from the perspective of his wife and four daughters, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of the family’s transformation on African soil.  Nathan sets out to tame Africa’s savage soul, and in the process it claims his family’s soul for ever.

If I were to describe this book in a word, I would say that is is an experience.  Kingsolver’s writing has a very unique  poetic quality that feels almost hypnotic at times.  She totally immerses you in this story, engaging your heart and overwhelming your senses.  She introduces a you to the Congo, a place that is ancient and beautiful and terrifying and utterly beyond human control.  The plot moves very slowly, particularly towards the end but if you can get past that you’ll find that the novel has a beautiful sense of symmetry.  After I finished, I closed the book and stared into space for a good 15 minutes because I had been so affected by it.  You know, real pensive staring, not crazy staring or I don’t wan’t to finish this paper staring.

The conclusion is satisfying but not very happy. You find out almost immediately that one of the girls is not going to survive and for most of the book that knowledge inspires this vague feeling of dread that actually kept me reading.   More than that, Kingsolver imbues her novel with the turbulence of Africa in the 1960s – bubbling, restless discontent.  Most of all this book makes you think about what the Western world has done (and is still doing to Africa) – an uncomfortable thing to thing to consider.  Have we done anything right?  Do we have pure intentions?  Should we be there at all? I would argue, probably not but I won’t get into that can of worms right now.  There’s no clear answer and  certainly no answer that can be uncovered in a brief blog post.  So I’ll leave you will an excerpt and my encouragement to try this one for yourself.

“Chains rattle, rivers roll, animals startle and bolt, forests inspire and expand, babies stretch open-mouthed from the womb, new seedlings arch their necks and creep forward into the light.  Even a language won’t stand still.  A territory is only possessed for a moment in time . . . Even before the flagpole begins to peel and splinter, the ground underneath arches and slides forward into its own destiny.  It bears the marks of boots on its back but those marks become the possessions of the land. . . Call it oppression, complicity, stupefaction, call it what you like, it doesn’t matter.  Africa swallowed the conqueror’s music and sang a new song of her own.”

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Poisonwood Bible

  1. I read the book some time ago … then read it again about a year ago. And it affected me each time in much the same way. Your review is not only informative, it is also well-written in its own right!
    All the Best,
    Daniela

  2. I read this book in year 9 or 10 for English,
    and actually thought it was incredible!
    it took so long for me to truly understand what was going on as the writing is so elaborate,
    but you’re right, it’s a profound and affecting book 🙂

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