Saturday, November 20, 2021

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

I bought a paperback copy of  "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver years ago, after Oprah picked it for her book club, back in 2000. I didn't get to it right away (plus ca change...), and my mother "borrowed" it a few years later when she was visiting me. The last time I saw it, it was still among the books in her bedroom at home. There are plenty of fish in the sea/other books on my shelves, of course ;) and I hadn't thought much about it until it was announced as the November pick for our "Clever Name" book club. (This time, I got an e-copy.) 

Subsequently, we agreed to a hiatus of the club until after Christmas -- so now we won't be discussing this one until January -- but I was already 1/4 of the way into it -- and finding it pretty interesting -- so I decided to keep going. 

I will admit that my reading tastes tend to run to Euro/North American-centric settings and authors. I was not entirely sure I was going to like a novel set in the Congo at the end of the colonial era, beginning in 1959 and spanning 30 years (even if it was a tale told from an American perspective). 

I was wrong. 

"The Poisonwood Bible" is, in part, the story of the Congo's transition to independence. It's also the story of the Price family of Bethlehem, Georgia:  Nathan Price, a fiery Baptist minister, his wife and their four daughters, ages 15 through 5, who arrive in a remote Congolese village at this precarious time in its history to preach the gospel and convert the heathen residents.  It's pretty clear that they are totally unprepared for what awaits them. 

The novel is narrated in turns by Nathan's wife, Orleanna, and each of the four young girls. Five different narrators might sound like a recipe for disaster, but Kingsolver pulls off the feat of making each voice unique, distinctive and memorable, each with a different perspective to offer on the family's story and on Africa. There is Rachel, the petulant teenager, who wants nothing more than to return to her carefree high school life in America;  the twins -- Leah, who idolizes her father, and Adah, whose disabilities have not affected her keen powers of observation or description; and little Ruth May, who despite her youth is not as innocent as she seems. 

It's a LONG book -- Goodreads tells me the e-copy is 546 pages, but on my Kobo e-reader, with the font size and spacing adjusted to my liking, it was more than double that (almost 1,300 pages). There's a lot about the history and politics of the Congo, which sometimes had my eyes glazing over a little.  But the writing is amazing, the characters are vividly drawn, and it kept me reading to find out what ultimately happened to them.  As Rachel observes near the end of the book, "You can't just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back." 

4 stars on Goodreads (maybe even 4.5, but not quite a 5 -- see the caveats above). 

If you've read this book, I'd love to hear what you thought about it! 

This was Book #54 read to date in 2021 (and Book #3 finished in November), bringing me to 150% (!) of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. (I've exceeded my best-ever showing in the Goodreads Challenge since I joined in 2016 -- which was 50 books read in all of 2019.)  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 23 (!) books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books." 


  1. I remember reading this probably about the time you picked up your paperback. I remember liking it -- for the historical backdrop and for the voices of the narrators -- but not loving it. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I loved this book, and it is my favourite of all Barbara Kingsolver's books. (I'm struggling to finish her last one.) It was the first book I picked for our bookclub, on the recommendation of my CEO at the time. (The other was Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" which is also wonderful.) So I haven't read it since the late 1990s, but I did love it. It was unlike anything I'd read before, and even though told from the US perspective, it has opened me up to books from all over the world. (Though I still think it might be the only one I've read set in the Congo!)

    Anyway, you should try non-US/Canadian books! All the English-speaking world - there's so much wonderful stuff from India and Africa as well as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (which might be more familiar to a US/Canada perspective).

    1. I know some people have an issue with books set in developing countries, as seen from a Eurocentric or North American perspective... but sometimes reading those books will introduce you to other cultures and make you want to learn more. So I can't see that as an entirely bad thing. :)

  3. I read this forever ago, I have a beat up paperback copy from 1999. :) I love Barbara Kingsolver's earlier work, but have had a harder time with her more recent works too. I loved Prodigal Summer, and The Bean Trees, but oh man, Flight Behavior was so promising and then I HATED the end. Poison Tree Bible was a favorite when I read it, maybe I should reread!