The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. Book report #13 (2021)

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kinsgsolver. Pub 1998

Another re-read of an old favourite, and another that I often claim as a favourite even though I’ve only read it the once. This book was both good and popular back in the day, and I read it along with many others in the last heady years before 9/11*. I recall loving it then, and extolling its greatness to others, but now couldn’t recall much about it at all, except for one scene.

In 1959, Oleanna Price and her four daughters are brought to the heart of the Congolese jungle by her Baptist preacher husband. They are woefully unprepared and miserable in the conditions – both in Africa and in their own family. The experiment of converting the small village to Christianity fails terribly, culminating with the people holding a vote (something they’ve just learned about in their country’s own failed attempt at democracy) and casting out Jesus from their lives. A bad situation gets worse, leading to the nadir of the death of one of the daughters and the dissolution of the family. Told in the various voices of the five women, we see their experiences and perspectives as unique to each of them – none of them wrong, all of them mostly tragic. All set within the significantly tragic recent/ongoing history of that part of the world.

As I’ve said of other recent re-reads, the benefit of so much time between readings is the relative unfamiliarity (I didn’t remember much – I recalled that one daughter died, but not which one) combined with the anticipation of a really good read (something that has not yet been unfulfilled). The scene described above – the voting in the church – was the only one I really remembered, so the story and characters were relatively fresh. The novel holds up well over time. Kingsolver captures the unique voices of each character well, using language and style such that the reading is a bit like listening to the characters’ speaking. One is a fervent believer (although in what changes through her life), and experiences the shattering of her beliefs over and over while still clinging passionately to them. Another is a moody teenager who grows into a solemn women. The last is a vain and seemingly superficial young woman who becomes a practical (if still ignorant) realist who, despite her fervent dreams of going back to the US, never leaves Africa.

One part I did not recall was all of the polemic about the US – all of it correct and justified, but also more blatant than I remembered. This is the one part that I would say I was less happy with, as I find those bits of preachy history distracting and unnecessary, breaking the adage of “show, don’t tell“. The same could have been accomplished by having one of the characters experience learning about such things or even participating somehow, rather than one character lecturing me about it. I experienced something similar with Kingsolver’s more recent book, Unsheltered, where the political messages and admonishments of the reader overshadowed the story and characters. There are shades of that here, perhaps a precursor to that novel to come. Interestingly, I had a similar experience with John Irving – his later novels have been so much less enjoyable (and in many cases unreadable) because of the hectoring and know-it-all tone of the underlying politics).

* Perhaps it is age catching up with me, but I find that when I read a novel now, I consider it as either pre- or post-9/11. Not that the story or any element of the book relates to that event, but I find my self considering the author’s own perspective and experience, and if and how our changed world influenced or is reflected in the novel. I try to imagine if the story would have been different – or told differently – in that world. For both Kingsolver and Irving, that seems to be the case, as their more recent novels have been consumed by their politics.

So another past favourite book that will remain on the favourites list (although I enjoyed The Lacuna much more).

Fate: keep. I will, however, part with the rest of the Kingsolver oeuvre with exception of The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour, as books that I might read again someday. 

1 – a book with a murder
8 – a book with a female author
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been

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