Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Well, I finished The Poisonwood Bible (1998) with a couple of hours to spare before book group... and, having worked out what I think about it, I am ready to write my review.  It's quite difficult to formulate my thoughts on this novel, because these thoughts do not all lean in the same direction.  Reviews feel like they should be unified, and that's rather tricky when I have both positive and negative responses to a book.  So... bear with me.  I'll bear with you bearing with me.  Hopefully by the end of the page we'll understand one another, no?

First things first, The Poisonwood Bible ought to be about 200 pages shorter.  I don't mean that careful and judicious editing throughout is needed, to compress the narrative (although this wouldn't be a bad idea) - I mean that it should have ended on p.427.  There are 616 pages in the edition I read (rather more than the supposed 350 page upper-limit of book group choices) and there shouldn't be.  I am astonished that any editor let Kingsolver keep going for those final 189 pages.  It was self-indulgent and unnecessary.  But, now I've got that off my chest, I can return to the review proper.  It gets more positive soon, promise.

The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family from 1959 to the 1990s - Nathan is a Baptist minister from Georgia (the US state, not the country), and has brought his wife Orleanna and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May to the Congo.  They are there as missionaries, but all is not going to go entirely to plan... to say the least.  This is the basic premise of Kingsolver's novel - and from such a simple idea, she weaves a long and complex novel.  Complex in terms of emotions, interactions, and gradual self-discovery, that is.  Not a lot really happens.  (Another reason why The Poisonwood Bible is difficult to write about.  Honestly, Barb!)

Five voices make up the narrative, each in the first person.  Orleanna Price speaks briefly at the beginning of each section  - which are named after Biblical (and Apocryphal) books - Genesis, The Revelation, The Judges, Bel and the Serpent, Exodus.  She speaks wearily, always in retrospect, and keeps her cards close to her chest.  Doubtless this is partly so plot points aren't revealed too early, and her melancholy ambiguity includes one momentous hint which kept me gripped and guessing for hundreds of pages.

But it is the four daughters who are the mainstay of the novel.  The narrative is passed between them, and Kingsolver constructs their four voices brilliantly, distinctly, and consistently.  Her fellow American novelist, Marilynne Robinson, hugely impressed me with Gilead because of her ability to 'capture' a voice - and while Kingsolver has a rather different slant on a minister, she certainly writes beautifully for his daughters.  Since they are so thoroughly depicted, it's difficult to summarise their characters - but, broadly speaking, I'll try.
  • Rachel is the eldest, a white-blonde ingenue whose Malapropisms ('never the train shall meet') and simple, unimaginative nature are initially endearing, but eventually rather concerning.  She never loses the all-American slang expressions she brings with her to Congo, and I rather liked her indefatigable sassiness, even if it is accompanied with a lack of cultural awareness.  
  • Leah and Adah are twins - Leah desperately seeks the approval of her father, and carries with her the guilt that, in the womb, she 'caused' Adah's disability.  Adah limps badly, and almost never speaks.  She also has a fascination with seeing things backgrounds, and especially palindromes.  Silent to others, her narration reveals her cynicism and bitterness, but also her humour.
  • Ruth May, finally, is the youngest - and the simplest.  Not in terms of intelligence, but in the simple, contented way she adapts to her surroundings, making friends amongst the neighbours, and doing her best to understand her father's teaching in their new environment.
For Kingsolver is not subtle about the clash of cultures.  Here, the welcome party for the Prices is interrupted by Nathan:
"Reverend and Mrs. Price and your children!" cried the younger man in the yellow shirt.  "You are welcome to our feast.  Today we have killed a goat to celebrate your coming.  Soon your bellies will be full with our fufu pili-pili."
At that, why, the half-naked women behind him just burst out clapping and cheering, as if they could no longer confine their enthusiasm for a dead goat.[...]"Nakedness," Father repeated, "and darkness of the soul!  For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamour of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord!" 
No one sang or cheered anymore.  Whether or not they understood the meaning of 'loud clamour,' they didn't dare be making one now.  They did not even breathe, or so it seemed.  Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. 
This is, firstly, a great example of Kingsolver's exceptional ability to convey individuals' voices through minor verbal tics.  Perhaps it isn't clear from just this excerpt, but only Rachel's narrative would have that 'why' in the second paragraph; only Rachel would finish 'believe you me'.  If Adah's sections have the most obvious stylistic identifications, the others are subtly tied to their narratives too.  That is the greatest strength of The Poisonwood Bible, and the strength that encourages me to read more by Barbara Kingsolver - the ability to create a character's voice.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that, in Nathan Price, she has done nothing of the kind.  The women of The Poisonwood Bible are drawn so well, so cleverly.  And, in the midst of them all, is Nathan.  He never comes alive, he is scarcely more than a Bad Man Who Does Bad Things.  His motivations aren't addressed, he has no depth whatsoever - it is a shambolic waste of an opportunity.  I don't think it's simply my Christianity (and the fact that I know a lovely, hard-working, deeply loving missionary in D.R. Congo) that makes me feel this - others at book group certainly agreed.  Nathan is angry, selfish, insensitive, violent... it was when he started hitting his children that my eyes rolled so much that I felt a little dizzy. Doubtless there are other novels where one meets ogres - Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter, for example, or any novel by Dickens - but in those books they are in the midst of the surreal and exaggerated.  Nathan Price is not, and, though all his attributes are individually believable, as a composite, without any redeeming features, they are not.  It is such a pity that Kingsolver allowed herself this laziness.  Had she made Nathan a character, rather than a two-dimensional face of Wicked Colonialism, The Poisonwood Bible would have been more interesting.  Then again, perhaps she just wanted Nathan as a catalyst to explore the reactions of the female characters?  That's the most charitable conclusion I can draw.

As I said before, very little happens.  We see the daughters try to adjust to their situation - their interactions with neighbours, who are variously kind or antagonistic and endlessly curious - and the gradually altering politics of Congo.  Pages and pages go by without anything particularly occurring, but they are somehow engaging.  Ruth May introduces 'Mother May I' to local infants; Rachel's hair is a spectacle to all; Adah is presumed eaten by a lion (but is not); Leah grows more and more interested in the teacher Anatole... mostly Kingsolver attempts the miracle of winding a narrative through emotions and thoughts without hanging them on events - and she succeeds.  It is beautiful writing.  It is also nigh-on impossible to review.  There is one odd thing... usually I jot down resonant or stand-out quotations whilst I read, or excerpts I think will help structure a blog post.  For The Poisonwood Bible, I wrote down nothing.  Kingsolver's writing is all even and constant - it all weaves into one.

But, as I noted at the top, something very weird happens.  The Prices' time in the Congo comes to an abrupt, tragic end.  And then, p.427, they leave.  After that it is as though it were another novel.   We follow the various daughters at occasional intervals for another couple of decades.  It is tedious and politically heavy-handed.  The points Kingsolver had previously shown through her story are now told through dialogue.  Show, don't tell, Barb.  All the unsubtlety in her portrayal of Nathan sweeps across the others.  I still can't believe that a novel can peter out quite like this one did.

So, there you are.  A confusing review, I daresay, but also a confusing read.  At its best, The Poisonwood Bible is phenomenally good.  Barbara Kingsolver is obviously an exceptionally talented writer.  The Bean Trees, which I read years ago, is also testament to this.  But at its best, The Poisonwood Bible is lazy, clumsy, unsubtle and poorly edited.  Overall I will say that Kingsolver's talents outweigh her occasional mismanagement of them, but it is always a shame when a novel could have been great (and, to be fair, a lot of people do consider it great) but, to my mind, failed to reach its potential.


  1. I read this one with my bookclub a couple of years ago and remember that we thought the same thing: less is more.

    It was a particularly good bookclub because we're expats in Brussels and what really happened in the Congo is still a very tabu topic here in Belgium.

  2. I really loved this book especially because it surprised me - I didn't expect to like it much. Although I do agree that the character of Nathan could have been more fully realised, most of the book was from the point of view of the women, so I guess in a way, you can only see it from that (I know, I'm being defensive!) However, I'm glad you read it and your thoughts have given a different perspective on the novel!

  3. Excellent review Simon. I read this book shortly after publication, and was "wowed" by it, but then again it was probably the first book I'd read that touched on colonialism, so there were many cultural revelations. And my reading tastes have evolved considerably since then as well, so I kind of wonder what I'd think of it today?

  4. Our review here:

  5. I read this one a few years back, and didn't care for it. You did an excellent job in this review of covering "the good, the bad, and the ugly."

  6. I completely agree with this review, and am so pleased to find someone not raving about 'The Poisonwood Bible'! Nathan, as the most difficult character for a modern reader to understand, desperately needed a narrative voice and a more nuanced personality. I thought there were similar problems with 'The Lacuna', although I also enjoyed 'The Bean Trees'. Have you read 'Prodigal Summer'? It's my favourite Kingsolver so far, although it can still occasionally be quite heavy-handed when she steps on her soapbox...

  7. Simon, I am with you! I loved Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees but couldn't get into Poisonwood at all; I thought it was a disappointment - while feeling simultaneously, as you did, that she is very talented. You're not alone. :) I do have The Lacuna waiting in the wings, so we'll see how she does on one more try.

  8. I'm with Susan in TX on this one. But an excellent review Simon.

  9. This is *exactly* how I felt about this book. It was such a frustrating book for me because it was often so very good, but then it got downright terrible, both in the characterization of Nathan, which struck me as being cheap shots against an easy target, and in the fact that it ended and then kept going.

    I did like The Bean Trees and plan to read Pigs in Heaven one day, but I was so exasperated by this book that I'm avoiding her longer books. Everything I've read about them leads me to think I'd feel the same.

  10. Yes! I remember being so frustrated and horrified that after the emotional crescendo of the family's time in the Congo, Kingsolver slowly lets the air go out of the novel. It feels like a let down balloon by the time you finish it. I felt like a fraud for having raved about it to friends while I was reading it, and then having to retract my more enthusiastic comments in the end.

  11. Kingsolver grew up about an hour from where I live. I read Poisonwood Bible many years ago. As Rachel might say, "it wore me to a frazzle."

  12. Alex - that must have made it an extremely interesting conversation! I have to admit, my understanding of African history is very, very vague... a little less vague now, of course!

    Sakura - thanks for your generous comment :) And I do agree that, since Nathan wasn't given any first-person narrative, he never really stood a chance... so I shouldn't judge Kingsolver on what she *didn't* do, I guess, but I still thought people like Anitole came over much more realistically.

    Laura - thanks! I've got to say, novels about colonialism are far from my favourite thing, especially when they're not written by people from the colonised countries, so Kingsolver did well for me to love so much of it!

  13. CBF - thanks :)

    Susan - thank you very much! Curate's egg reviews are so difficult to write...

    Laura - thank you! I'm so glad that I'm not a lone voice on this. At one point one of the girls (maybe Adah?) says "It's good that Nathan didn't have any sons, because he might have had to respect them." In the same way, I felt like saying "It's good that Kingsolver didn't have to give Nathan's narrative, because then she might have had to try to understand him."
    I've only read this and The Bean Trees, so I'll definitely look out for Prodigal Summer, thanks :)

  14. Julia - hurrah for shared opinions! I shall certainly look into some of her other novels, but I intend to steer a bit clear of Lacuna, since it's so mammoth...

    Anon - thank you very much, whoever you are!

    Teresa - "cheap shots against an easy target" - that's EXACTLY what it was! I wish I'd thought of that phrase ;) I am so dearly loving how many of us are in agreement...

  15. Victoria- that did make me laugh, the image of you having to go and retract some of your enthusiasm! I do think it demonstrates the laziest editing ever... the final 180pp are the sort of things Kingsolver should have known, as an author, but needn't have told the reader...

    Margaret - haha! I've got to say, until the final section of the book, I did love Rachel. I even loved her a fair bit at the end, racism aside. Her sassy expressions were a joy!

  16. I have this book with me and have not got to it as yet. This review definitely makes me want to read it asap.

  17. I have to defend Kingsolver in the area of Nathan. I believe it was in the perspective of the family. They did not know how the man felt or what he thought. He made a choice as head of the family. The story voices the impact it had on his family.

    1. Hmm... think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but I like your angle!

  18. I have to defend Kingsolver in the area of Nathan. I believe it was in the perspective of the family. They did not know how the man felt or what he thought. He made a choice as head of the family. The story voices the impact it had on his family.

  19. It has been several years since I read this book but I remember loving it from beginning to end. But than again, I also love Michener & Rutherfurd with their very long stories ...

  20. While I agree that Kingsolver could have done a better job with the end of the book, I have to disagree on your take on Nathan.

    I think part of it may have to do with your defense, as it were, of Christian missionaries. Of course there are many missionaries in foreign countries doing great and very charitable things, but Nathan is not that man. To say that all Christian missionaries are completely good people would be just as wrong as characterizing them all as bad, which I hardly think Kingsolver does.

    But the main issue I have with this review is the misunderstanding of Nathan. If you think he should have been "understood more," then you've missed the entire point of the novel. Nathan is not to be understood by anything other than his actions, because that is exactly how he is perceived by his family and the villagers. Nathan does not get to know his wife or daughters, he does not get to know the people he is supposedly there to help, and he does not take the time to get to know the Congo. In turn none of the aforementioned get to know him and nor does the reader. Nathan isn't so much to be understood as a person, but as the characterization of the destructive force of blind drive. That, I think, Kingsolver does very well.

    The perfect analogy for Nathan's approach to life and relationships is in the scene where he is chopping away at the stump of the Poisonwood tree to make room for his garden. He knows nothing about the tree, only that it is in his way. He takes an ax to the stump and takes an ax to all his relationships where better understanding and a scalpel would have served much better. For this he only hurts himself and his goal is never accomplished.

  21. What a great review. This is one of the few books I read from your whole century list.

  22. I just finished reading the book and had very much the same reaction as the review expresses, and as echoed by some of the other posts, although the fact that Nathan never speaks for himself did not bother me so much as it did others. Of the responses to the review, the one that puts it most succinctly in terms of how I reacted to the book is this one by VictoriaH: "It feels like a let down balloon by the time you finish it. I felt like a fraud for having raved about it to friends while I was reading it, and then having to retract my more enthusiastic comments in the end."

    Great review.


  23. I just reviewed this book on my blog (, and, like the other people commenting, I thought your review was spot-on. In my review, I also picked a page where I thought the reader might as well just stop, and I'm pretty sure it's the same spot you picked. It's nice to get some validation!

    One thing I wanted to add to this little discussion I'm so late in joining: I read on Kingsolver's website that for this book, each member of the Price family represents an attitude. That would explain the shallow character development in pretty much every character. On the website (, she says, "In the four Price daughters and their mother, I personified attitudes crossing the spectrum from Orleanna’s paralyzing guilt to Rachel’s blithe 'What, me worry?'" Later on that same page, she says Nathan also "represents an attitude." As a lover of fiction, this disgusts me a little, but what can you do? Her characters aren't people; they represent attitudes people have.


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