Updated on June 17, 2016
22. ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver
I picked up The Poisonwood Bible on holiday. It was in our villa in Antigua, in a cupboard full of books left behind by previous guests, and I started it the day before we left and brought it back to the UK with me. It’s now continuing it’s journey: I left it in a ‘little free library’, a sort of outdoor bookcase, at the end of someone’s garden in Bristol.
This novel is about an American family who move from Georgia, USA to the Congo, Africa in 1959. There’s the father and mother, Nathan and Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel (the oldest, 15, and vainest), twins Leah and Adah (Leah is adventurous and outgoing; Adah is intelligent, practically mute and walks with a limp), and Ruth May (the youngest, 5). They’re in the Congo on a Christian mission led by their imposing preacher father, who intends to bring his religion (and other hallmarks of western civilisation) to the locals.
I loved how this book switches perspectives between the female characters. You get to hear from the mother and each daughter, and their voices really develop as the book goes on. Rachel is entertaining in her self-obsession, and Ruth May’s childish voice is rendered very convincingly. Seeing inside Orleanna’s head is also very interesting. Outwardly she is an obedient wife, but you gradually come to see that, internally, she is at best frequently questioning her life and at worst rebelling against it, but this only rarely comes out in confrontations with her husband. I think my favourite chapters were the ones from Adah’s point of view – she never speaks, but the voice in her head notices everything, dissects everyone else’s personalities, and plays with words and language in a captivatingly poetic way. As for Nathan, at no point do you see inside his head, but he does come out with some pretty interesting lines:
“Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes. It’s hard to say which is worse: seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes.”
Of course, culture shock is one of the biggest themes in the first half of the novel, which deals with the family’s first years in the Congo. From the first meal they are served by the tribe they go to live amongst, to their consistent alienation from the locals in the different ways they dress, live, even farm the land, it is clear that the Americans know very little about how to thrive in Africa, and some of them are more adaptable than others. At the two extreme ends of the scale are Leah and Nathan, which is notable because Leah starts out craving her father’s approval, but as she adapts to Africa Nathan remains steadfast in his ways. Where Leah bends with the wind, Nathan remains straight and brittle. As the story progresses you’re left wondering just how much he’s willing to sacrifice to succeed in his mission.
There are some great symbolic moments in the novel. Nathan’s attempt to grow food in African soil is excellent, as is what happens to Methuselah the parrot. There are deep, important themes of race and colonialism, and of course a strong religious seam, as well as differing philosophies about community and politics. The novel speeds up towards the end as the family begins to break up, and we see what happens to each of the characters over the ensuing decades as they go off and choose their own paths.
My only problem with the book, really, was the character of Rachel. Throughout the main section set in the Congo she certainly comes across as vain and self-centred, but in the chapters when she is a grown woman she just seems to turn into a caricature of herself. Whereas I feel like the other characters’ arcs all progress quite naturally and believably, Rachel becomes so overblown as the shallow gold-digger that she ceases to seem like a real person.
All in all, though, I thought this was an excellent book, and the compelling, (mostly) well-rounded characters kept me gripped across its hundreds of pages. If you want to immerse yourself in a big, complex story, The Poisonwood Bible could be right up your street.
“Most of all my white skin craves to be touched and held by the one man on earth I know has forgiven me for it.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.