Africa, Unbound: The Poisonwood Bible


Get ready for a bold statement: I have just read one of the best books I have ever come across. Take a moment to think about how many books I’ve read since I learned to read and you can imagine why I’m impressed. Have you ever come across The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? She’s an American novelist, daughter of medical and public health-workers who lived and worked in the Congo at some point in her youth. She’s written more novels I know nothing about, but this book – this book is one that worms its way into your head and changes the way you think.

It’s the story of Nathan Price, a fervent and terrifying evangelical Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959. More accurately it’s the story of the women, not Nathan himself, as the narrative is taken up by his wife Orleanna and each daughter in turn: Rachel, the self-centred eldest, Leah and Adah, twins, and Ruth May, the youngest. Nathan’s narrative is, in itself, not especially important, so isn’t included. His dominance is such that the women in his family must construct their lives as a reaction to him, and make their own peace with the shattering tragedy caused by his single-minded pursuit of conversion.

It’s also a story about Africa, the long years of political turbulence in the Congo, and the effect on a people who know that, after decades of Western exploitation, ‘a Congolese life is like the useless Congolese bill, which you can pile by the fistful or the bucketful…and still not purchase a single banana’. Each woman in the Price family must reconcile herself to her experiences in the Congo, and they do so in ways that are surprising but somehow entirely satisfactory.

The individuality and richness of each character is what I love about this book. Each section of narration is so entirely in the ‘voice’ of whoever is speaking that the writing style alters completely, but seamlessly and consistently throughout the book. Spiky, caustic Adah is my favourite, and I find her story especially poignant, but Orleanna’s sections are lyrically beautiful at times. Leah’s narrative I felt tended to become Kingsolver’s soapbox, especially in the second half, when the politics rather overcomes the plot. Having said that, the picture created of the history of the Congo is vivid and disturbing, and manages to make something human and personal out of the faceless news reports. I’ve no idea whether all the claims made in the book are true – Kingsolver is so richly scathing about Western intervention in Africa that I was both shocked and sceptical – but that’s the point. Now I’m going to find out. It’s not a perfect book, but now, when the Congo comes to mind, I feel as well as think something. And I suppose the author would be quite pleased with that.

2 thoughts on “Africa, Unbound: The Poisonwood Bible

  1. I’ll look out for this one in the charity shops Rach x I need something diffrent to read – I tend to alternate between one for my favourite american crime/detective mystery thriller authors and then a more serious in-depth book. ‘the bell Jar’ was my last serious book – heavy going at first but I broke off and read a book comparing and commenting on the various biographies written about Sylvia Plath and realised that ‘Esther’ was much more autobigraphical than I had assumed. I then understood her character better which also helped a lot with the plot (or lack of it!) and especially the ‘Assylum’ chapters.
    I assume that american crime/detective mystery thrillers are not your favourite genre but actually – the book I raced to finish today did have a lot of depth to the two main characters and the author used them to make some quite astute comments on celebrity – paricularly the ‘rich daughter’ kind – and why they are compelled to constant attention-seeking – trying not to be invisible – comparing that to the closed-up anti hero who had spent most of his adult life trying to BE invisible following a particularly physically abusive upbringing.
    You should try one for as a change – Michael Connelly’s ‘Harry Bosch’ novels – particular the latter ones always have characters with depth and make you reflect. Robert Crais’ Elivis Cole/Joe Pike novel’s really dig deep and are relationship and character-led ( from ‘Hostage’ onwards – the earlier novels were more cliched and formulaic).
    Harlen Coben’s stand alone novels are very good too (not his ‘Myron Bollitar’ novels – the main charater aka the author tries too hard to be funny – too many wisecracks – doesn’t work for me). James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels are always gripping but there’s a lot of time spent on the character of the villians and and he develops the main character – Psychological Profiler/detective – Cross a little more each book – the last one I read – ‘Cross’ made me weep in places! ( as did the relationship/friend ship of the Cole/Pike characters in Robert Crais’ ‘The Forgotten Man’ and ‘The Last Detective’ both Very well written).

    Anyway, I’ll look forward to your next review! xxx

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