Friday, February 02, 2007

The Poisonwood Bible

My friend H went to work with an international development agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year. She sends back some stunning photographs and long emails about her experiences of the land, the people, and her work. It all looks so idyllic, beautifully lush green and her work is exciting and will give this area many a self-sustainable aspect in another 2 years. In today’s world, international development is quite well equipped to understand what aid a war or famine stricken country needs without intruding violently into a territory or its culture.

This has not always been the case.

The Poisonwood Bible (Book 16) is a book I was intrigued by when it appeared on a book club list in 2000. It got left behind from my reading list because it was unaffordable then and it soon slipped out of my mind and from a 'most wanted now' onto a 'forgotten till you prompt me' list.

Till now. A month ago I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf and couldn’t resist borrowing it.

Chapter 1
"We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle”

This first sentence and accurately sets the tone for The Poisonwood Bible. Like nail on the head accurate.

Nathan Price, zealous Baptist preacher from Georgia, U.S.A, has dragged his family to the Congo to spread the Word and convert a small village (and then all of the Congo) to Christianity. The book is narrated alternately by his wife and four daughters and each tells of the surprises, joys, horrors, friends, foes and weather they find in their new home amidst the political upheaval the Congo is undergoing. Orleana is Nathan’s wife and has unquestioningly followed her husband on this mission in spite of the danger that this trip is fraught with. Rachel is the oldest child, a beauty queen daughter, whose precious hand held mirror and vanity reflect on the basic rustic living that they are subject to. Leah, of the aforementioned cake line, is one of twin girls and the child most willing to embrace, adapt and accept the situation. Her twin is Adah, born the weaker one, who walks with a limp, reads upside down and refuses to talk unless absolutely essential. Ruth May is the baby, five years old and full of bright eyed innocence she charms the village children and finds ways to adapt her American games to life in the Congo.

The girls/ women are completely unprepared for the trip to Africa and by Rachel’s birthday that Betty Crocker cake mix is rock solid from the humidity. Their year in the Congo is told through the chapters with each telling the experience from a different perspective – from Rachel who hates it all can’t wait to go back to ‘Civilisation’ to Leah who forms a bond with the land and its people. Things are falling apart right from the start and each chapter tells of the increasing political instability and Nathan's persistent bullying of his family and apathy to the village sentiment. His fiery beliefs leave little room for compromise and chapter after chapter bear testament to his increasing fanaticism and its effects on his family.

About halfway through the novel a death wreaks havoc breaking up the family in different ways. The family disperses and from then on the novel moves with yet greater speed covering a span of 30 years and the different lives each family member carves out.

Kingsolver is a compelling writer and her portrait of the Congo is robust and ambitious and expansive all with beautiful detailing. She has delicately woven the historic and quite tragic fight of the Congolese to gain independence from the Belgians by introducing characters both native and foreign into the story. Each character’s strengths, weaknesses and inherent flaws come to light in the backdrop of a nation in turmoil.

One of the things I found interesting was that Nathan Price has no voice in the book, no defense for his actions. The entire narration is done by the girls/ women and in my reading I found myself thinking that just one chapter by Nathan would put a different light on things, spun things around a bit more. But I am no writer or critique so I shall just keep that thought on the backbench and give my heartiest recommendation to this book.

It is an extremely interesting book and even those with only a small interest in history will greatly enjoy this read. It is meaty and full and direct and will make your heart ache for the pain inflicted on Africa.


  1. ohh I love the Poisonwood Bible, one of my favourites...a definite must read.

  2. Uhh, i'm reading Freakonomics and the Bio of Sharon Osbourne at the moment.

    Is this non-fiction?? Long time no see, hope you doing fine. Ms. 31 ;)

  3. Anonymous5:17 AM

    Nice review. I had started it, put it down about quarter way through (can't rem why) and its been idle on my bookshelf ever since. Think I will start on it as my next read - you review definitely makes me wanna read it.

  4. thanks for this review. sounds really interesting. africa is such a forgotten place - anything worth reading on it should be read. will definitely pick it up if i see it in a bookstore.

  5. Anonymous2:27 AM

    Sounds very interesting. Ordered it on an impulse from Amazon.. now have to practise some patience till it gets here. Though not difficult, am reading an interesting book at the moment called Sunlight on a broken column.

  6. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. (Although, most of her other stuff is VERY different - most take place in the American Southwest - "Animal Dreams", "The Bean Tree", and "Pigs in Heaven", and one (so far) takes place in the Virginia/Kentucky area - "Prodigal Summer.")

    Much as I love her writing, I found this a difficult book to get into. I'm not sure why, exactly. But once in, I was hooked and it has become one of my favorites.

  7. Beks: Now it's one of my favourites as well!

    John: It's fiction alright. But I think some part of her writing as with loads of fiction is that it is based on some reality/ historical events/ author experience.

    Surya: Glad you are inspired enough to want to read it. It was a stunning book, vast in scope and detailed in beautiful detail. Do let me know what you think of it when you are done.

    Small talk: Yes, you are absoltely right, there is not nearly enough exemplary writing on African nations problems and people. This is a wonderful book that for a short time allows us to picture a world so removed from our own.

    Pea: I like this impulsive trait of yours and wish I had more of the quality myself. Do tell what you think of it when you are done reading it. How is Sun on a broken column (name seems familiar and I may have read it)?

    Maisnon: This is such different writing from her normal American focus, but as an only African novel she has hit the nail on the head. I had no problem getting into it. I was hooked instantly. Glad you stuck with it and liked it as much as I did!