Posted by: Jeff | June 15, 2010

Book Review: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

There are Christians, and then there are Christians. This book does a remarkable job of describing the consequences of trying to impose a rigid doctrine upon others – both upon a foreign culture with its own customs, traditions, and mythologies, and upon one’s own family. Nathan Price, a southern Baptist minister intent on converting and saving every soul in the expansive Congo, moves his wife and four daughters to the Congo for a stay that will change all their lives irrevocably. A decorated war veteran distinguished more by his ability to run from inevitable death than any real bravery, Nathan seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of God by showing fortitude and resolve in carrying out God’s work in the Congo even in the face of imminent danger and political turmoil.

Kingsolver chooses to tell Nathan’s story through the eyes and voices of his wife and daughters – through the women we gain a picture of the Reverend as deeply flawed, ironically egotistical (quick to condemn pride but self-righteous himself), and thoroughly misogynistic. The boldest daughter, Leah, tries desperately to win the respect of Nathan only to be denounced for trying to act like the son he always wanted. Each narrator has a unique and individual voice – they portray varying perspectives of a figure and a country that come into increasingly clear focus.

As chaos consumes the Congo, Nathan’s pride and dogmatic rigidity slowly bring about the fury of the Price family’s adopted village. Nathan’s inability to adopt to village and linguistic custom – a translation error leads him to frequently declare that Jesus is poison – make many enemies among those in the village. Just as violence consumes the country – the novel is set astride profound geopolitical upheaval – the Price family is changed forever by a terrible accident wrought by Nathan’s ability to make enemies.

The Price women are finally pushed to the brink, and following the tragtic and untimely death of a daughter, leave the village forever. Each woman’s life remains forever linked to the tragedy in the jungle of the Congo, but their ability and strategy for coping with their loss is profoundly different. The women follow divergent paths – one remains rooted and linked to the Congolese political struggle forever, one turns her back on the Congo – though she never truly gets that far away – and one battles internal demons and must make peace with herself before making peace with the past.

The greatest flaw of the novel is the stark change in narrative voice as the daughters grow older. The self-centered and vain narration of Rachel yields to a bizarre and vapid diatribe befitting the likes of Heidi Montag – as parodied by comedic writers at The Awl. Rachel becomes horridly ditzy – a characteristic much more subtle when she was a young woman. Leah becomes self-righteous and weak, and Adah seems to manufacture internal conflict where in the past she had made peace. Only Orleanna and Ruth May feel consistent through the novel – in fact, Orleanna’s narrative segues throughout the novel are among the most poetic and intimate moments in the book.

While the writing becomes a bit inconsistent late in the book, Kingsolver’s novel about lives changed forever by the Congo is truly epic in scope – the disruption and dissolution of the Price family is told in a stunning manner, and one finishes the novel wishing only that such poetic justice had been done to its eventual redemption.

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  1. […] here to see the original:  Book Review: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver « The … Share and […]

  2. I also just read and loved this book. I thought that Adah’s voice changed because she was ‘cured’ of her hemiplegia…no more palindromes. (which I loved; what beautiful and clever word play).


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