The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

J. L. Harland • May 25th, 2021

Shortlisted for The Orange Prize, The Poisonwood Bible is both illuminating and thought provoking. Barbara Kingsolver’s work has been translated into twenty languages.

In 1959 evangelical Nathan Price decides to take his family to the Belgian Congo for a year to become a missionary and preach the gospel. His hope is to change the people there but Africa has an unexpected profound and lasting effect on all of them.

The story is told through the eyes of the five female members of the family. Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Through their eyes we witness Nathan’s mission, his lack of humility, his cruelty and eventual descent into a sort of madness.

Each character’s voice is quite distinctive. Orleanna, the mother, gives an overview of their journey and her pain as she witnesses the irreversible changes that take place during their time in Africa. Rachel, the eldest, is self-absorbed and resistant to the move, especially when Nathan decides that they should stay on despite the political unrest. The twins, Leah and Adah, see things differently – Leah is fearless while Adah, who is mute by choice, observes and records her feelings in a more analytical manner. Ruth May, as the youngest, is at the core of their lives and their eventual catalyst for leaving the village and Nathan.

The book’s structure echoes the bible in many respects, divided into seven books with names like Genesis and Exodus. It is epic in scope covering over thirty years and the political climate of the country at a time of upheaval and unrest. Well researched, it draws the reader into the net of the family Price and their individual experiences of Kilanga, the village, and Africa as a whole. Their experiences in Africa mark all of these characters in different ways.

The story is absorbing, tragic at times and always engaging. It isn’t hard to see why this is an international best seller. It pulls the reader in and does not let go, leaving one with a sense of loss at the end.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber and Faber. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize which she won in 2010 with The Lacuna. Another novel, Flight Behaviour was shortlisted in 2012 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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