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Recommended Reading: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Posted on: Monday, 8 April 2013

Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has been speaking to me from bookshelves for years. You need to read me, it would whisper seductively. I’m everything you love in a book. I’m published by Faber, and I know how much you love your Fabers. Barbara Kingsolver’s just your kind of writer. She’s said things like ‘Perfectionism is my disease‘ - I mean, come on! I was made for you. You know you’ll love me. But despite all of its pouting and hip-wiggling, I continued to snub it. 

Moment of surrealism over, I picked up TPB from the work library a couple of months ago. Its seductive voice was even more powerful on account of my recent move to Belgium, and the initial setting of the book being the Belgian-run Congo in the late 1950s. It’s the story of the four Price sisters, their mother Orleanna and ‘Our Father’ Nathan, who move from the US to a remote jungle village. Nathan Price, a fearsome preacher of the fire-and-brimstone variety, is on a mission in the truest sense of the word: a spiritual quest to save the souls of the primitive and pagan Congolese. 

The eldest of the Price girls is Rachel, a vacuous beauty queen who spends most of her time in the jungle dreaming of prom. Next are Leah and Adah; twins but un-twins due to random injustice in utero. The youngest is Ruth May who, in the words of another key character, Anatole, has ‘the heart of a mongoose - clever and brave.’ Between the four girls and Orleanna, the story is unravelled in chapters headed by alternating character names and told in five very different narrative voices. These voices - constantly shifting but each distinct, each poetic in its own way - support the narrative arc in a way that’s both utterly convincing and yet seemingly uncontrived. 

It’s very, very difficult to write a convincing, uncontrived child narrator, don’t you think? Kingsolver pulls it off with masterful skill. “My monkey sock monkey was named Saint Matthew,” Ruth May ponders sadly after Saint Matthew’s disappearance. Sentences later she tells the reader about the family’s domestic help, “...Mama Tataba, our cooking lady. Rachel calls her Mama Tater Tots. But she won’t cook those. I wish she would.”

Elsewhere the writing style is sumptuous, lyrical, to-die-for; paragraphs and passages of lush verdant prose that defies my usual trick of ‘fold the corner when you see a bit you like for scrawling-down-later purposes’. I could have turned almost every page. The girls’ descriptions are suffused with Biblical imagery, ranging from the hilarious (“my sisters ran out screaming like the first free pigs off the ark”) to the stunning (the inexplicable presence of a beautiful blue and white plate in their shambolic jungle hovel is likened to that of the “Virgin Mother in her barnful of shepherds and scabby livestock”). And, oh, the colours. “It is early morning now, rooster-pink sky smoky air morning,” Adah tells us. Is that not utterly alive-in-your-head deliciousness? Orleanna describes a fleeting moment of pleasure away from her husband and children: “A kiss of flesh-coloured sunrise as I hung out the wash.” 

And so the women tell the story - their own, and the Congo’s. When the family eventually disband for South Africa, for the US and elsewhere, one of the girls is left behind in the red soil of Kilanga in an unmarked grave. Orleanna spends the rest of her life atoning for her non-crime and the three girls that are left to grow into womanhood have to make their own reckoning of their past. As their mother says, “To live is to be marked...to live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.”

Kingsolver has complained of being pigeon-holed as a ‘political writer’, whatever that might mean (she seems to think the label is lazy, covering everything from ‘This is about the world’ to ‘This makes me feel uncomfortable’). But, true to her reputation, there are some big questions being asked in The Poisonwood Bible. How does one atone for a sin that isn’t one’s own? Those sins could be personal - whether it be a lack of action that leads to the death of your beloved child, for example, or gorging yourself on too many minerals in the womb, leaving your twin stunted and deformed - but also political - as an American, or even a white person, how can an inidividual atone for the gross abuse of one nation by another? And in terms of Kingsolver’s Big Questions this is barely scratching the surface. Is God a veangeful God, she wants to know? Is morality relative? In the materially comfortable Western world, can we really make a judgement about life in 1960s Africa? “The loss of a life: unwelcome. Immoral?” asks Adah. In a society where we have so much left-over protein we feed it to our pets then yes, for a child to die from hunger is probably immoral. “But this is just one place. I have seen a world.” The moral debate lingered long after I finished the book, but one thing is certain: The Poisonwood Bible is at least as much the true story of the Congo’s war-torn past as it is the story of the fictional Prices.

Kingsolver strikes me as a real, for want of a more flattering word, swot of a writer. The novel begins with a disclaimer citing the impossibilities of her getting into Zaire while researching and writing the novel but details some of the meticulous background reading and interviews she conducted nevertheless. Moreover, she ends with a detailed bibliography of novels and non-fiction texts she devoured in her preparation. I love that breed of transparency. I suppose it’s unsurprising, though, from a woman who quotes Samuel Johnson in response to a question about how she became a writer: “A man can turn over a whole library to write a single book.” She’s done an awful lot of reading and an awful lot of waiting - 30 years, apparently - to gain the ‘maturity and wisdom’ she felt she needed to write this. Believe me, it's worth the wait. 

Photos taken in the Afrika Museum in Tervuren, Brussels - I wrote something about it here


  1. I read this about 10 years ago whilst travelling in South Africa. I remember sobbing at quite a few points. Reading this has made me want to re read it.

  2. I can't believe I've neglected it for so long. She's been quoted as saying The God of Small Things is one of her favourite books, and TPB really reminded me of it style-wise - I want to re-read that, now!

  3. I loved this book. I think it's about 10 years since I read it but you make me want to re-read it immediately. I'd forgotten how beautiful the prise was.

    1. Jesus, Cara, I've just found your instagram - c'est magnifique.


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