Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Review: "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver
First published in 1998
543 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5
(image source)

"The Poisonwood Bible" is long and complex and daunting and a bit hard to get into -- but I'm so glad I stuck with it because this riveting, lyrical novel is one of the best I'll read this year.

Kingsolver takes us on a journey to "darkest Africa" in 1959 alongside American missionaries -- the poor, unsuspecting Price family of Georgia. Wife Orleanna and her four daughters have been dragged to Africa by their patriarch Nathan, a fiery evangelist hell-bent on baptizing every child in the Congo.

The Prices could hardly have picked a worse moment in history to go to Africa. It's a time of political unrest, upheaval and corruption as the Congolese gain independence from Belgium only to fall under an even worse dictatorship. Poverty, disease and hungry bellies rule the day as all of the Congo's abundant natural resources are trucked out daily, putting money in the pockets of white Europeans and Americans.

It's intimated from the very first page that tragedy and disaster will befall the Price family. Tensions rise so much and so quickly that I was captivated waiting for the bottom to fall out -- and indeed it does. We're with the Price girls as they pack to leave Georgia for the unknown, as they witness their father's catastrophic failure to gain the trust of the local villagers, when a horrific event splits the family apart, and eventually on into adulthood where we can see the unique and lasting effects the Congo had on each woman.

I found Kingsolver's writing to be superb -- beautiful, lyrical and full of voice. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different Price daughter and Kingsolver infused so much personality into each passage (including clever, deliberate misspellings like false-eye dolls instead of false idols). And the author's descriptions of the jungle -- from its flora and fauna to its plagues to its people -- was immersive and fascinating.

"The Poisonwood Bible" centers around a dark time in Africa's history, a period that seems to have been meticulously researched by Kingsolver. I love novels that can teach me something, and this book certainly fits the bill. I read "The Poisonwood Bible" with a reading buddy from Goodreads and it was wonderful to be able to share my thoughts and gain insight from her perceptions and viewpoints. This is the kind of complex novel that will likely mean something a little different to every reader, which would make it an excellent book club pick.

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