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29th September
2010
written by Steph

Back in 2001, when I was in my final year of highschool, I had a relatively open schedule, where I had large periods of free time during the day. On such occasions, I would generally take over a portion of the library near the leisure reading section under the guise of doing my Latin or Algebra homework, but really looking for fiction to read and while away the hours instead. One of the books that always caught my eye but which I never managed to read more than the first 10 pages or so of was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. So when TLC Tours offered me the chance to finally read and review this puppy, I was more than happy to oblige. Going into this book, I certainly knew of it, but really knew nothing substantial about it except that it took place in Africa. I’m not sure that I even entirely knew that it involved missionaries, but involve missionaries it does. The book kicks off in 1959 when the Price family, headed by Nathan Price, leave their comfortable if not overly happy life in Georgia to spend a year saving the souls in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the deepest wilds of the Congo. The novel is divided into seven books, each one prefaced by the musings of Orleanna Price (Nathan’s wife) on their time in Africa, ruminations which softly foreshadow the action that will form the focus of each book. The books themselves are formed from what read like diary entries, each the voice of one of the Price daughters. Through these girls, we see the Prices struggle with culture shock and culture clash as they attempt to assimilate into their new home, struggling with physical, emotional, and social hardships in an environment in which few seem to thrive. We watch as time gradually shapes their attitudes as well as their notions of faith, family and injustice. Each of them is affected differently by their experiences in Kilanga, but nevertheless, each is irrevocably changed by Africa. Y’all, I’m so glad I finally read this book! I was a bit nervous because I still found the opening section a bit dense (like the lush jungle it describes), and I wondered if maybe my 18-year-old self knew something my 27-year-old self was going to pay for, but once I made it past Orleanna’s introductory segment into the four Price daughter narratives, I was bewitched and read on hungrily. And you know how I generally loathe long books, and this one is a hefty 550 pages, so it’s no quick read. And yet, I never tired of it, never wished for it to hurry up and just be finished so I could move onto something else. This book could probably been another 200 pages and I would have read happily on, so take that for what it’s worth. It sounds terrible, I realize, but one of the things that first struck me about this book was just how good the writing was! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I certainly was unprepared by the sheer poetry and fluidity of Kingsolver’s prose. I suppose I thought this would be a book with an interesting, fast-moving plot, but I didn’t think it would be artful. I feel so bad about this preconception because it was entirely baseless and I could not have been more wrong. Kingsolver’s words congregated on the page and belted out bold and impressive hymns to me as I read. Frequently I was impressed by the power and deftness of the imagery, and I was doubly pleased with how effectively Kingsolver was able to capture 5 distinct voices in her writing. By the end of the novel, I really felt like I knew each Price woman inside out. I really felt like a good deal of time was spent conceptualizing each character, getting her backbone and personality just right, so that even though none of the characters are static, they change in ways that are consistent with the ways they are initially presented. Not all of the changes that occur are good, things are not only gained but also lost, and the characters are all true in this respect. Another thing that I got wrong about this book prior to reading it was assuming it would be predominantly plot-based. There is plenty of action to be found, but I do think this is largely a novel that attempts to capture a time and place and explore many ideas. Obviously a two major aspects of the novel are examinations of post-Colonial Africa and the dissemination and the proselytizing of Western religion; I suppose in some ways the two concepts are not all that separate as Nathan Price’s attempt to convert the villagers to a Western belief system is not all that different from the way America and Belgium are presented in terms of trying to govern and control the Congo. Both of these slants very much deal with the ways in which blacks have been subjugated by the white, and as my knowledge regarding the history of the Congo is (embarrassingly) non-existent, I found this novel a really interesting presentation of its bones dressed up in the frills of fiction. Certainly Kingsolver has taken liberties with what she portrays, but I don’t doubt that she has done considerable research into the topic and that for every morsel of fiction, there are certainly grains of truth seasoned in there as well. Some of the basic messages such as the moral questionability of entering a different land and exploiting its people or forcing one’s own beliefs/ways of life on others are transparent and perhaps don’t require much argument, but I still thought that Kingsolver addressed these issues in a manner above and beyond the superficial. In many ways then, The Poisonwood Bible, is a book of Africa (indeed, Kingsolver took to referring to it as “that D.A.B.” or “that Damn African Book” while she was accruing info on it and still in the early stages of deciding whether to write it or not… it kept haunting her until she finally did!), but I think it would be a mistake to limit it by assuming it is only a book about Africa. It’s also several coming of age stories, stories that are independent of geography, even if the setting does inform it. It is about making peace with oneself and learning to draw the line between what is worth fighting for and acquiescing to the injustices that one cannot control. It is about the ties that bind and break a family, the losses we can sustain and make steps to overcome with love and determination on our side. It is about the inner flame that forever struggles to burn brighter as we fight to survive in the face of adversity. Simply put, it’s a novel about life and the unexpected courses it can take. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful things that are brimming in this book, but such is the case with great books. I always feel like words fail me when someone else has published proof of how powerful language and writing can be. Truth be told, I’m a little bit scared to try anything else by Kingsolver now, because I just don’t see how this book can be topped; few authors will achieve something like this in their lifetime, so what are the odds that someone would do so more than once? I worry that anything else by her will feel like a letdown, and I do think that I will probably revisit this one again and again. There are so many reasons to read this novel: for the story, the language, the ideas… choose any one of them, but don’t wait any longer! Oprah, you win again... Thanks to TLC Tours for providing me with this (free) copy of the book and including me on this tour. For other bloggers’ views on Kingsolver’s oeuvre, check out some of the other stops, won’t you? Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, September 7th: Literate Housewife (The Poisonwood Bible)
Wednesday, September 8th: Lit and Life (The Lacuna)
Thursday, September 9th: Bibliofreak (The Bean Trees)
Monday, September 13th: Presenting Lenore (The Lacuna)
Tuesday, September 14th: Fyrefly’s Book Blog (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
Wednesday, September 15th: Eleanor’s Trousers (The Bean Trees)
Friday, September 17th: My Two Blessings (The Poisonwood Bible)
Monday, September 20th: Til We Read Again (The Lacuna)
Thursday, September 23rd: Rundpinne (The Bean Trees)
Tuesday, September 28th: Raging Bibliomania (The Lacuna)
Tuesday, September 28th: The Lost Entwife (The Lacuna)
Thursday, September 30th: Wordsmithonia (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
Friday, October 1st: In the Next Room (The Lacuna)
Monday, October 4th: Caribousmom (Prodigal Summer)
Tuesday, October 5th: Bookworm’s Dinner (The Lacuna)
Thursday, October 7th: she reads and reads (The Lacuna)
Monday, October 11th: Book Chatter (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
Wednesday, October 13th: Jenn’s Bookshelves (Prodigal Summer)

26 Comments

  1. 09/29/2010

    I;ve read this book while already in Belgium and it had a different impact. The way things are seen from here are very different (in a let’s-put-it-under-the-carpet type of way).

    My bookclub read an amazing non-fiction book about the Belgian Congo which I highly recommend: King Leopold’s Ghost. What happened in Congo gave way to the first global human rights campaign. Fascinating stuff.

  2. 09/29/2010

    Very nicely reviewed! I loved learning the bit about the D.A.B.

  3. 09/29/2010

    I have no idea why I didn’t appreciate this book more. It is one of the few books that I have read and not particularly liked that I actually want to go back and re-read.

  4. 09/29/2010

    Your review on this book was fantastic, and really does it justice. I think it’s probably one of my favorite books and you are right when you say that it’s consuming and layered. I have only read 2 of Kingsolver’s books, but they were indeed very different. The Poisonwood Bible was definitely the better of the two.

    Also, to address your earlier comment, I do definitely agree that this book was very complex and epic, and in some ways I guess I had a hard time expressing the differences between the two stories. I think what I meant to say was that The Lacuna was almost too complex, and it came off as sort of dizzying. It was a huge, sprawling story, and one that I felt was needlessly complicated. This book was much better organized and more seamless. So while it was a deeply involved and imagined story, it felt a little more streamlined and smaller to me. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused!

  5. 09/29/2010

    @ Alex: I could certainly see how reading this book in Belgium would put a different spin on it. I do think that at times there is some finger-pointing done in the book, but I did think that generally speaking it was really just interesting to read a bit about a piece of history I knew nothing about. Thanks so much for the suggestion of King Leopold’s Ghost – I will certainly check it out!
     
    @ rhapsody: Yes, I learned that bit by reading the “P.S.” section at the end of my copy! It was really fun and enlightening little piece!
     
    @ Stephanie: I think this book might be one where timing is key… As I said, I tried it about 10 years ago and didn’t make much progress, but this time it really clicked.
     
    @ zibilee: Thanks for clarifying what you meant in your review of The Lacuna! I admit that that’s a book that interests me, but I’ve read a bunch of lukewarm reviews of it, and I’m really glad I started off with this one instead! I’m still on the fence as to whether I want to read other Kingsolvers or just read this one again! 😉

  6. 09/29/2010

    The thing that struck me most about The Poisonwood Bible was Kingsolver’s beautiful prose. I also spent years shying away from this book thinking it would be too difficult/complex/boring but how wrong I was! This is definitely one of my favourite books of the year. I haven’t read anything else by Kingsolver but I’m looking forward to sinking myself into more of her writing.

  7. i have this book on my shelf and TRIED to read it a few times but must have been in the wrong frame of mind. this, along with ‘house of leaves’ and ‘the book thief’ are three books that i’ve just never been able to slog through despite accolades and adoration of 99% of the reading public. 🙂 but for you to give a 5 out of 5 means i’m really missing something here. i resolve to give it ONE more try in the next few months.

  8. One of my all-time favorites!

  9. 09/29/2010

    What a great review: if I hadn’t already read and loved it, I’d be scrambling for a copy right now. This was true for me too: “This book could probably been another 200 pages and I would have read happily on.”

  10. 09/29/2010

    @ chasing bawa: Yes, I was also completely blown away by the writing… I guess I just thought it would be pedestrian but it was anything but! I hope you find Kingsolver’s other works equally satisfying!
     
    @ nat: Timing is everything, and I don’t know how far you’ve managed to get into this book, but I’d say that you really need to give it 30 or 40 pages to get into the rhythm. The first bit is a little overwhelming, but once you get into a groove, it’s a great read!
     
    @ Shelley: Glad to hear from a fellow fan! This was such a great read…
     
    @ BuriedInPrint: Normally I shy away from long books, but my attention never wavered with this one. It was just so engrossing!

  11. I knew that you’d love this one! I enjoyed it, but did wish it had more plot at times. I think I knew as little as you when I started reading it – in fact I’m not even sure I knew it was set in Africa! I’m very pleased I read it and I did enjoy it – unlike The Lacuna which had very little plot, but also a coldness that was very different from PWB. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that one 🙂

  12. 09/29/2010

    I have good memories of this book, but they’re getting vague – I think I read this almost ten years ago now, is that possible? When did it come out? In any case, I’d like to do a start to finish Kingsolver read at some point (stop me if I start saying this about EVERY writer) and confirm my impression that The Poisonwood Bible is one of her very best.

  13. JoV
    09/29/2010

    Haven’t read any of Kingsolver’s novels, and hope to read this one with such positive endorsement from you! I’m dying to read more about Belgian Congo after reading travelogue by Tim Butcher “The Blood River”.

  14. 09/29/2010

    Love the reference to the DAB! While I adore Poisonwood I’ve never liked another Kingsolver as much. Prodigal Summer is pretty good, though. Rachel the ‘extreme blonde’ was my favourite sister despite her faults!

  15. 09/29/2010

    Well, my 18-year-old self did like it, but I did, for some reason feel it dragged in the second half. Like, it focused on six months for 300 pages, and then suddenly it was covering a year every 20 pages or so or something. I guess I really need to reread it since I’m doing my Africa project. Sigh. So many books, I was only going to Read Africa for two months!!

  16. 09/29/2010

    @ Jackie: Based on everything I’ve read, I don’t think The Lacuna will be a good fit for me. I might try it out of curiosity some day, but I’m certainly not going to rush to do so.
     
    @ verbivore: Can you believe this book was published in 2000? Because it was and so it is 10-years old now!
    It’s true that you probably don’t need to keep adding authors to your “start-to-finish” project list… 😉
     
    @ JoV: Haven’t heard of that travelogue, but did a quick search and it sounds fascinating… Maybe I’ll wind up doing a mini-Congo reading project at some point! I do hope you get to read this one… it’s so good!
     
    @ Nicola: I think Adah was my favorite of the sisters, just because I loved her eerie entries the most! Also, I’ll contemplate putting Prodigal Summer on my list of future Kingsolvers to check out!
     
    @ Rebecca: You’re right that the pacing near the end of the book is a bit odd, like the book break’s into a gallop where it tries to eat up swaths of time as economically as possible, and it did feel a bit unbalanced to me. I was a bit surprised she followed the girls for so long, but in the end, I felt I understood why she couldn’t let them go.

  17. 09/30/2010

    I read a couple Kingsolver books before I tackled this one, and based on my opinions, your fears may be justified. I read Prodigal Summer fairly recently and it was just “meh.” I read The Bean Trees in high school and remember really liking it, so I think that deserves a second go around, especially after reading Poisonwood. My college roommate was absolutely in love with Kingsolver, probably because of Poisonwood, so I should ask her for input on her other novels.

  18. 09/30/2010

    I was so nervous when I clicked on your review! I loved The Poisonwood Bible so much that it’s stayed within the top 5 favorite books ever since I read it. But sometimes, when I read something so long ago, I wonder if I would like it now. I think from reading your review I’d enjoy it just as much now as I did then! Great analysis of the book, by the way. You reminded me of so many reasons why I loved the book.

  19. 09/30/2010

    Hmmm … you are tempting me with your review! I’ve read a couple Kingsolver books (The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer) and kind of thought maybe I’d read enough. I liked those two, but she isn’t someone I feel I need to read everything of. But maybe I should read this one too? It probably is her biggest and best book, so maybe ….

  20. mee
    09/30/2010

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. It’s good to know you loved it that much, as I’ve read many mixed reviews on it (hence it keeps going up and down my pile!). But 5 stars from Steph! Very tempting.One of these days..

  21. 10/01/2010

    @ Kari: See, now I think I don’t want to read anything else by her, just read this one book over and over again! Gah!
     
    @ trish: I know this is one you love, so I’m very glad I agree! 😀 There were so many things to like, I think I would have been remiss to give it anything but 5!
     
    @ Dorothy: Based on the feedback I’ve been getting, it certainly sounds like you should give Poisonwood a chance, before ending your relationship with Kingsolver. I really loved this one, but haven’t read anything else by her, but by all accounts this really is her best. It would be a shame for you to miss out!
     
    @ mee: I think that maybe this really wasn’t a perfect novel, BUT it was a perfect reading experience. There isn’t really anything I would change about it, and I respected all of Kingsolver’s choices. I thought it was a great “issues” book, but it was also just really fun to read too!

  22. 10/01/2010

    This is a wonderful book which deserves to be remembered (and read) for years to come. I have been disappointed with her subsequent work – including The Lacuna, which I just couldn’t get into. I regret BK started with a marvellous book which she has had trouble equalling. A very enjoyable review which reminded me why I loved the book at the time I read it

  23. 10/04/2010

    @ Tom C: I am certainly glad I started with Poisonwood! I kind of would be ok if Kingsolver had never written anything else, because this one is so good! I could definitely see how her other books would have a hard time living up to it.

  24. Lu
    10/09/2010

    Makes me happy to see such a glowing review of this one from you! It’s one of my all-time favorites. We had to write a kind of thesis in order to graduate high school and I read this the semester before I began researching and thus changed my entire topic to the Congo. I probably would have been better off just submitting this book, because I’m not a very good writer of history papers. I also really enjoyed The Bean Trees, but that’s in an entirely different category of novel. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece, The Bean Tree is just plain old good readin’.

  25. 10/11/2010

    @ Lu: Nothing wrong with plain old good readin’, but I do think I’ll need quite the breather before I pick up another Kingsolver. Anything would certainly pale in comparison to this one. I love that you loved it so much to be inspired to write your thesis about the Congo!

  26. […] Review of ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Steph of the blog, ‘Steph and Tony […]

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