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Poisonwood Bible Mass Market Paperback – 1 Sep 2012
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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, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Breathtaking. (Sunday Times)
A book club classic . . . There is humour, history, love and loss. (The Times)
A brilliantly realised epic of one family’s journey to the heart of darkness. (Independent)
An updated, dysfunctional version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women . . . it pours forth ideas about good and evil, civilization and savagery, and the unlikely nature of redemption. (Sunday Times)
Provocative and affecting . . . illustrates how profoundly both women and the world have changed. (Claire Messud)
Soaringly panoramic... the jungle throbs with life and death – every aspect unnervingly convincing. (Julie Myerson)
Funny, terrifying and heartbreaking. (Mail on Sunday)
What triumphs is Kingsolver’s gentle good humour, the ingenuity of the strong women characters and a universal human spirit . . . The Poisonwood Bible ranks with the most ambitious works of post-colonial literature and it should establish Kingsolver’s reputation as one of America’s most gifted novelists. (Gavin Essler Independent on Sunday) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
My interest waned when the last part of the book (3 hours at my reading speed) was dragged out, in my opinion, from the the point the family went their separate ways. I wasn't, like some reviewers, bored with the politics, which I found enlightening. What bored me was the detailed introspection, with the exception of Rachel, whom I found amusing, as each character philosophised on life and much more. For me, it was interesting to know what happened to them all but this should have been a short epilogue. Ultimately, because the book was so good for so long, I settled on a four. However, I'd give reservations when recommending it and I don't feel I could face another Kingsolver for quite a long time.
Told from the five points of view of each woman - Nathan's wife Orleanna, 16-year-old Rachel, 14-year-old twins Leah and Adah and five-year-old Ruth May - The Poisonwood Bible has a fairly epic scope, spanning around 30 years, and yet each woman's story is deeply personal. Each narrator has her own distinctive voice, values and vision. The unashamedly selfish Rachel peppers her speech with unintentional malapropisms; her language, like her views on race and politics, is carelessly skewed. Adah, academically gifted but physically disabled by a brain injury at birth and possibly affected by some form of autism, is prone to reading things backwards and obsessed by palindromes and linguistic patterns. Language in general is important in the story: inflections are misunderstood, concepts are untranslatable, and translation becomes symbolic of the vast differences between the Prices' way of life and that of their new Congolese neighbours. Everything the Prices bring from America somehow fails to 'translate' when it reaches Africa, whether it's the powdered cake mix ruined by equatorial humidity, Nathan Price's uncompromising sermons that leave his congregation alienated and confused, or the family's preconceived notions about the Congo and its people.
This is a long and sometimes rambling book, and the further the story progresses, the less deftly the (albeit fascinating) exploration of post-colonial African politics are woven into the narrative, and the particular voices and states of mind of the characters make some chapters a little hard-going in comparison to others. Overall, though, this is a beautifully written and absorbing novel with fascinating characters and I thoroughly enjoyed it.