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The Poisonwood Bible [Paperback]

Barbara Kingsolver
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (250 customer reviews)

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Book Description

10 Jan 2000
The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of an American family in the Congo during a time of tremendous political and social upheaval. The story is told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them all they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it - from garden seeds to Scripture - is calamitously transformed on African soil. This tale of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction, over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa, is set against one of history's most dramatic political parables. The Poisonwood Bible dances between the darkly comic human failings and inspiring poetic justices of our times. In a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, Barbara Kingsolver has written a novel of overwhelming power and passion.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 616 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; New edition edition (10 Jan 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057120175X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571201754
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (250 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94,193 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

As any reader of The Mosquito Coast knows, men who drag their families to far-off climes in pursuit of an Idea seldom come to any good, while those familiar with At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kalimantaan understand that the minute a missionary sets foot on the fictional stage, all hell is about to break loose. So when Barbara Kingsolver sends missionary Nathan Price along with his wife and four daughters off to Africa in The Poisonwood Bible, you can be sure that salvation is the one thing they're not likely to find. The year is 1959 and the place is the Belgian Congo. Nathan, a Baptist preacher, has come to spread the Word in a remote village reachable only by airplane. To say that he and his family are woefully unprepared would be an understatement: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle," says Leah, one of Nathan's four daughters. But of course it isn't long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable and they've arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan's fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do. The first part of The Poisonwood Bible revolves around Nathan's intransigent, bullying personality and his effect on both his family and on the village they have come to. As political instability grows in the Congo, so does the local witch doctor's animus toward the Prices, and both seem to converge with tragic consequences about halfway through the novel. From that point on, the family is dispersed and the novel follows each member's fortunes across a span of more than 30 years.

The Poisonwood Bible is arguably Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious work, and it reveals both her great strengths and her weaknesses. As Nathan Price's wife and four daughters tell their story in alternating chapters, Kingsolver does a good job of differentiating the voices. But at times they can grate--teenaged Rachel's tendency towards precious malapropisms is particularly annoying (students practice their "French congregations"; Nathan's refusal to take his family home is a "tapestry of justice"). More problematic is Kingsolver's tendency to wear her politics on her sleeve; this is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, in which she uses her characters as mouthpieces to explicate the complicated and tragic history of the Belgian Congo.

Despite these weaknesses, Kingsolver's fully realised, three-dimensional characters make The Poisonwood Bible compelling, especially in the first half when Nathan Price is still at the centre of the action. And in her treatment of Africa and the Africans she is at her best, exhibiting the acute perception, moral engagement and lyrical prose that has made her previous novels so successful. --Alix Wilber, --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


'There are few ambitious, successful and beautiful novels. Lucky for us, we have one now, in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.' --Jane Smiley

'The Poisonwood Bible is a book club classic ... The novel begins as a family saga but evolves into a polemic about how African lives are ruined by Western greed and fear ... There is humour, history, love and loss. The characterisation is exquisite.' --The Times

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
161 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, beautifully written and truly superb. 11 April 2002
Until I read this book, I had thought I would never find a book I loved as much as Memoirs of a Geisha. I was wrong.
I finished The Poisonwood Bible about two weeks ago and am still having what can only be described as withdrawal symptoms now. I wanted to re-read this book the moment I finished it. Throughout the book, as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to dread the end, and made a conscious effort to slow down and savour the words on every page. It was a truly absorbing and beautiful journey through an incredibly well written and researched book - a completely plausible story of a family's experiences in the Belgian Congo in a highly political era.
The wife and 4 daughters of a devout evangelist follow Nathan Price in his mission to the Congo to educate the 'Tribes of Ham' in the teachings of Jesus, unaware of what they are to learn from a starkly different way of life than that lived in Georgia, USA. Wholly unprepared for the consequences of a white family's presence in a country which is being politically abused by the American Government, they all have lessons to learn quickly. Add this to the unrelenting and almost inhospitable environment of the country itself and the reader senses from early on that there is a recipe for disaster brewing. Indeed, the reader pre-empts and fears that moment's ultimate arrival, having developed an extraordinary empathy for the characters along the way.
The author writes beautifully, holding the reader's interest by providing a rich tapestry of historical and political education and an examination of family life in difficult times. The book combines humour and sadness with diplomacy and skill leaving nothing to dislike or criticise. The author herself states that she waited forty years for the knowledge and wisdom to write the book. Trust me, it was worth the wait. Read this and weep.
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81 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, passionate and poetic 5 Sep 2003
The Poisonwood Bible is a wonderful book which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone and everyone. I picked it up at a jumble sale and took it on holiday with me, hoping to be entertained for a couple of days, but instead found myself completely entwined with the story. Kingsolver’s ambitious narrative follows a Baptist minister, his wife and four daughters on their mission to the Congo in the late 1950s, as the region takes its first steps towards independence. The life of each family member is utterly changed by the experiences in the Congo, and even after the sudden and shocking ending of the mission the Congo remains the heart of darkness and of light in each life.
Orleanna Price, the mother, narrates the first chapter in each section, and each following chapter is narrated by a different daughter. This device allows the reader to become quickly and intimately acquainted with the family, but the father, Nathan, remains a distant and ominous figure, reported differently by each narrative. Rachel, the eldest, longs to return to her friends and home, Leah and Adah, the unidentical twins, become fascinated and at home in the Congo, and Ruth May, the baby, tries to understand what she sees around her, accepting her surroundings without surprise. Adah in particular offers fascinating, comic and razor-sharp portraits of those around her. Kingsolver creates an instantly recognizable voice for each speaker. The book encompasses with powerful themes such as freedom, redemption, free will, love vs. survival and many more. The girls have all been brought up on Nathan’s fire and brimstone religion, which leaves no room for compromise or the lessons that are to be learnt from other cultures.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting but too long 8 Feb 2013
Format:Mass Market Paperback|Verified Purchase
The story of a man fixated on his own idea, dragging his family along the path to (easily avoidable) disaster is reminiscent of Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast, and the scenario is equally gripping; but Poisonwood adds a lot of historical and political information which, while interesting, is really another book in itself and hardly moves the plot along.

The device of telling the same episode from the different points of view of the individual family members does not, I think, work particularly well, for the individual voices are not clearly enough differentiated, and we never hear the thinking of the missionary-villain who engineers the disaster - he is, in fact, not very believable, certainly not believable enough for the reader to understand why his wife could possibly be so silly as to endanger her children by following him. And indeed of all the voices that we hear, the wife's continual muddled self-justification is the most irritating.

But the details of life in a remote Congolese village are described so well as to keep one reading, and would have been sufficiently engaging without the missionary storyline.

An interesting book which ruthless pruning would have made quite a bit better. Read Mosquito Coast and see the difference.
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intensely moving, insightful, educational 24 April 2000
By A Customer
I came to this book with a fair amount of prejudice. Having just read Achebe's Things Fall Apart (an African perspective on colonialism), how could an American have anything to add. Yet Kinsgsolver, through the ingenious device of five different narrative voices (the mother and four daughters), manages to bring several completely different perspectives to the many topics coverd by the book. I found the book gripping, and as the sage evolves, intensely involving and it was a delight to find a book which I genuinely found hard to put down and then counted the hours untill I could pick it up again. This author is "mature" in the best sense of the word, bringing to her work an authority and insight which to me has elevated the work to the maybe cliched category of "twentieth century classic". I am pleased it was recommended to me and that I bought it and read it. Excellent
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it
Brilliantly written and amazingly atmospheric.
Published 5 days ago by Feefee
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking
Such an in depth understanding of all the complicated facets of life in Africa. Also a tale so well told with everything intertwined as thickly as the very jungle itself.
Published 16 days ago by Amanda de Chassart
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishingly wonderful
An utterly stunning book. I'm often moved to tears at the end of a good book, but I've never wept before simply because I was so dismayed to have finished it. Read more
Published 21 days ago by CJM
5.0 out of 5 stars A treasure. Still giving food for thought, months later.
A. Really wonderful book! Even if you have not lived in Africa, and brought up children there (as I have) It would have great resonance. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Doreen Robertson
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent
This book was given to my daughter by her English teacher, and I ended up reading it myself. It is an outstanding well written book, though it is best thought of as a series of... Read more
Published 1 month ago by David Maitland
3.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant story but a bit too wordy to hold my ...
A brilliant story but a bit too wordy to hold my attention constantly. Felt a bit choresome at times if that's a word! Read more
Published 1 month ago by Fiction Squirrel
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
One of the best books I have ever read. Left me speechless! I was sorry I finished it.
Published 1 month ago by Pauline Walkinton
5.0 out of 5 stars powerful!
It took a while to get into the story and warm to the characters, but it was worth the effort. I could hardly stop reading by about a third of the way in and was sad when I... Read more
Published 1 month ago by lyndaR
5.0 out of 5 stars Barbara Kingsolver is my new must read author.
Great characters, conflicting cultures and religion, dodgy politics, romance. couldn't put it down.
Published 1 month ago by Marlene H Letheren
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful
I could see,smell and feel Africa with this book.The story was so
involving that I didn't want it to end.Clear,descriptive writing....perfection !
Published 2 months ago by HELEN E BELCHER
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