Review: Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”

by Miles Raymer

Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is an unmistakably brilliant book that didn’t quite work for me. Like the Congo jungle in which the majority of the novel takes place, Kingsolver’s prose is dense and overflowing with biotic energy:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever. (5)

Anyone who can kick off a story like that has my full attention. On top of its impressive writing, The Poisonwood Bible also has an engaging story to tell––that of the Price family, evangelical Baptist missionaries who travel to the Congo in 1959 to spread the good word to the natives of a small village called Kilanga. The family is led by the tyrannical Reverend Nathan Price, whose wife Orleanna follows him into Africa with their four young daughters in tow: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. The story unfolds in the first person, with Kingsolver jumping from one woman to another, each with her own unique perspective and internal voice. Adah observes:

What a landing party we were as we stalked about, identically dressed in saddle oxfords, long-tailed shirts, and pastel cotton pants, but all so different. Leah went first as always, Goddess of the Hunt, her weasel-colored pixie haircut springing with energy, her muscles working together like parts of a clock. Then came the rest of us: Ruth May with pigtails flying behind her, hurrying mightily because she is youngest and believes the last shall be first. And then Rachel, our family’s Queen of Sheba, blinking her white eyelashes, flicking her long whitish hair as if she were the palomino horse she once craved to own. Queen Rachel drifted along several paces behind, looking elsewhere. She was almost sixteen and above it all, yet still unwilling for us to find something good without her. Last of all came Adah the monster, Quasimodo, dragging her right side behind her left in her body’s permanent stepsong sing: left…behind, left…behind. This is our permanent order: Leah, Ruth May, Rachel, Adah. Neither chronological nor alphabetical but it rarely varies. (62, emphasis hers)

These four wide-eyed girls and their cautious mother soon learn that the people of Kilanga have little use for their religion, a fact that steadily drives the stubborn Reverend mad. Orleanna laments:

I saw him reborn, with a stone in the place of his heart. Nathan would accept no compromises. God was testing him like Job, he declared, and the point of that particular parable was that Job had done no wrong to begin with. Nathan felt it had been a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa. (96)

Using this as her ominous starting point, Kingsolver leads the reader on a circuitous and painful journey over three decades. Needless to say, things change a lot as the girls grow into maturity in a strange and often-hostile environment. Their fictional struggles take place against the backdrop of the real-life legacy of King Leopold II’s colonial domination of the Congo, as well as the Congo’s first attempts at self-governance, which are doomed from the start by the despicable interference of the United States. The book is an acerbic condemnation of colonialism and foreign intervention, as well as a celebration of the remarkable resilience of natural ecosystems and native peoples. Rachel reflects:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back. Oh, I see it time and again with the gentlemen who come through here on business. Some fellow thinks he’s going to be the master of Africa and winds up with his nice European-tailored suit rumpled in a corner and his wits half cracked from the filaires itching under his skin. If it was as easy as they thought it was going to be, why, they’d be done by now, and Africa would look just like America with more palm trees. Instead, most of it still looks exactly how it did a zillion years ago. (515)

The Poisonwood Bible has many admirable qualities, but also some significant flaws. The text is overwrought, becoming repetitive in both structure and content as the page-years pass. It could have been edited into a much tighter story that packed a more condensed punch, but instead it sprawls needlessly.

This problem is compounded by Kingsolver’s sanctimonious tone, which becomes increasingly unfiltered as the novel progresses. While the first half of the book offers a clever examination of the dangers of religious certainty in the face of nature and human diversity, the latter half somewhat belies that message with political hand-wringing that smacks of the same intellectual obstinacy. Finally, despite the grown-up Rachel’s snarky but legitimate protests, Leah and Adah flirt with moral relativism and the noble savage fallacy in ways I found especially grating.

It would take much more than these minor shortcomings to condemn this impressive novel, even if they did hamper my enjoyment of it. In the final pages, Kingsolver poignantly uses the power of literary perspective-taking to demonstrate how similar experiences can produce very different results:

Rachel: “If there’s ugly things going on out there, well, you put a good stout lock on your door and check it twice before you go to sleep. You focus on getting your own little place set up perfect, as I have done, and you’ll see. Other people’s worries do not necessarily have to drag you down.” (516)

Leah: “There is not justice in the world…What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.” (522)

Adah: “We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.” (532)

The Poisonwood Bible presents an honest telling of multiple truths––a valuable accomplishment.

Rating: 7/10