In the year 1959, delusional evangelical Nathan Price uproots his family (I think from Georgia or Mississippi? It’s hard to find this info but it’s not terribly important) to be a missionary in the Belgian Congo. The novel is narrated by the Price women, including the mother, Orleanna, and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. The plot of the novel follows the troubles the family encounters while trying to live and grow up in a vastly different culture in a country deep in the throes of political upheaval.
I read The Poisonwood Bible because it was picked by a member of my book club. I was cautious at first, thinking that because of the title that it might be pro-religion or religion-focused, but that is not the case.
Unilateral “you should read this” recommendation here. No qualifiers or caveats. It was my favorite book I read in 2021 and definitely high in my all-time favorites.
The Poisonwood Bible is a truly expansive work of literature that explores each of its themes and topics with the depth they deserve. This book is incredibly strong in character, plot, mood, theme, and sentence-level writing. It is long, and it takes some time to get invested, but the entire last 200 pages or so feel like an exquisite payoff from the expertly crafted scaffolding of the rest of the novel. I have nothing negative to say about this book.
What sticks with me the most, looking back on this book months after reading it, is how impressed I was and still am with Kingsolver’s sense of character. There are 5 distinct narrative voices, and Kingsolver manages to not only make each voice distinct from the others, but each voice changes as the characters grow and mature while staying consistent enough with the character that I can still flip around through the book and pick up on whose chapters I’m looking at within a few sentences.
My favorite character changed at least three or four times as I read the book, and months after finishing it I’m still torn between Leah and Adah. I love how Leah’s and Adah’s stories are sort of inversions of each other. Leah’s story starts with her being deeply concerned with individual and personal relationships, but as she ages her attention turns outward. She spends most of her childhood striving for religious excellence and parental approval, but as she hits adolescence and deals with the feeling of never being good enough, her awareness opens to the political strife happening around her and she invests herself into her community instead of a god and father that will never care about her. Adah, on the other hand, starts out as probably the most open of the four daughters to their new life in Kilanga. She’s going to be an outcast anywhere, so she may as well do it somewhere more interesting. If Leah’s story is one of branching out, Adah’s is a story of returning to roots; Where Leah branches out further into Africa, Adah returns to Georgia, creating the only remaining cluster of Prices with their mother. Adah spends most of her story coming to terms with herself and her place in the world, from the intensely traumatic ants scene to her fellow grad student helping her discover that her identity-defining disability was at least partially psychosomatic. Adah’s chapters were the most poetic and fun to read from a joy-of-sentences standpoint, although it did sometimes get laborious to keep trying to read into her palindrome poems and wondering if I should be reading her sentences backwards for extra meaning.
Rachel actually started out as my favorite narrator because she was funny and flippant, but pretty quickly became my least favorite as she got more self-absorbed and racist. I didn’t connect much with Ruth May, as I usually am not compelled by young children, but I thought her death was really well-executed and cast an intense shadow over the rest of the book. That scene was the definitive no-turning-back point at which the characters and the reader have to drop all lasting hopes that the Prices could somehow return to their normal lives and pretend Kilanga never left a mark on them. I liked how Kingsolver used Orleanna’s narration as more of a section-separator, with her parts usually summarizing what had just happened and foreshadowing what was to come from a mature perspective. I don’t think it would have worked as well if Orleanna’s chapters were full of scenes and narrative like the others–part of what makes the story so compelling is that we get all of the action through the eyes of the daughters and get to see how each important scene shapes their development. The scarcity of Orleanna’s narration also lends it great weight so that the more richly lyrical prose in her sections land with more gravity than they would if we heard from her more often.
The temporal expansiveness of The Poisonwood Bible is deeply impressive to me. I can’t imagine what planning out that plot and doing all the necessary research to get the political landscape right must have been like. My edition came with an afterword where Kingsolver discussed having collected folders and folders of notes in a cabinet for years before she ever dared to begin writing. It must have been terrifying to finally say “okay, I’m going to write this book now.” The afterword also mentions that she converted the book into a screenplay because it’s going to be made into a tv series eventually. I honestly don’t see how that would work, though. So much of the book’s impact is in the narration, and losing that would flatten the nuances of the story considerably.
The Poisonwood Bible is easily my favorite book that I read in 2021. I cried when I finished reading it both because the ending was emotional and pensive and because I was so sad it was over. I can see myself keeping it on my shelves and re-reading it periodically until it disintegrates, and then buying a new copy.