Book Review

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver

My Edition:
(beat up) Paperback, 543 pages
1998, HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060930535

The Reverend Nathan Price uproots his wife and four daughters and moves them to the Belgian Congo in 1959, thinking only of his success. They carry with them everything they think they’ll need from home, but soon find that most of it is rendered useless by the climate and lifestyle of Africa. Each member of the family is changed and shaped by the country and their tragic tale is told across decades, reflecting not only how one family was affected by the country, but how all those living there were affected by the country’s fight for independence. 

Yet again, my blurb fails to do this book justice. I found this book at least a year ago (probably longer…) in the free section of my local library. It’s a bit more…well-loved…than I prefer when it comes to books I own, but I’d heard of it and it did sound good…so…free book! It sat in my car as an emergency read should I ever be caught without a book and lo and behold, that happened to me recently. Well, once I got a few chapters in, I knew this wasn’t going to be some book I’d casually read here and there over the course of a few months. I was hooked by the daughters Price, each with their own unique personality and way of speaking, and I had to know what happened next.

Nathan Price is a stubborn tyrant, determined to bend the people and nature of Africa to his will. As a result, his family learns a hard lesson and seemingly pays the price for his hubris, while he continues his mission of trying to baptize every local in their village of Kilanga. Readers experience this through the eyes of his daughters, as things play out, and the eyes of his wife, reflecting on the past. There’s Rachel, the eldest at sweet sixteen, who is beautiful, vain and self-centered and not exactly the most intelligent of the brood. There’s Leah, half of a pair of genius twins, earnest in her faith and desperate for her father’s love and attention. There’s Adah, the other twin, crooked and mute, but fiercely intelligent and observant. Then there’s little Ruth May, only five when she’s transported to Africa, just looking to have fun and make friends.

I looked forward to each new chapter because Kingsolver mixed up the perspectives, giving different views and opinions for events depending on who was speaking to the reader. I think Kingsolver developed clear personalities for each family member and stuck with them, even as events caused the characters to change and grow. Kingsolver’s knowledge and experience in Africa is clear, making the experience of the Price family authentic. I especially enjoyed the way she wove the native language, as well as a smattering of French, into the narrative.

This is a heavy book, content wise, and honestly, literary (or contemporary? I don’t know…) fiction isn’t something I pick up often. But I’m glad I gave this beat up book a chance because it was really an enthralling story. My only real critique is that perhaps the last fifth or so of the book was very heavy with history (and I realize a lot was happening in the Congo in the time this book was set in), and it felt overwhelming. It became more like cramming in a history lesson and trying to wrap up the events of the country, with less of a focus on the lives of the characters I had become so invested in.

I highly recommend this book for historical/literary fiction lovers.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible”

  1. This was chosen as the common read suggested to the entire academic community the year I started at Mount Holyoke. I remember being caught up in each character and the plot development, but didn’t really know what to make of it as a whole. It was nice to revisit it through your review.


    1. Yeah, the characters were what I was really interested in. You’re right that overall, I’m not sure what to take from it. I mean, except to be grateful for my first world privileges…


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