The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver. Published in 1998.

On the back of my copy of The Poisonwood Bible is a quote from Jane Smiley’s review from the Washington Post Book World: “This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.” I love that line for its generosity and its humility and for the way it makes me feel better about not knowing where to begin myself.

But where can one begin with Kingsolver’s hugely ambitious novel? Spanning thirty years of tumult in the lives of a single unfortunate family, the multi-voiced narrative fearlessly tackles colonialism and patriarchy, culpability and absolution, the perversion of Christianity and the dark history of Africa, all with such artistry and urgency that I stayed up too late several nights in a row rather than set the book aside.

The story begins in 1959 when Baptist preacher Nathan Price brings his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters to a remote village in the Belgian Congo to convert the unsaved by any means necessary. Orleanna narrates her section of the novel with retrospection, but each of the girls tells her tale as it happens. To create one strong first-person voice is accomplishment enough, so Kingsolver’s creation of five here is masterful, and indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of the novel is seeing through each girl’s, each woman’s, eyes in turn. We know tragedy is inevitable—Orleanna, looking back, sets an eerie tone of foreboding from the first sentence—but waiting for the inevitable, watching for it through the innocent-yet-uninnocent eyes of the Price girls, is a beautiful torment.

Two of the daughters—the youngest, five-year-old Ruth May, and the eldest, self-absorbed Rachel—offer little insight or real understanding, forcing us to make connections on our own. This, I admit, can be frustrating, particularly with Rachel, whose haughty ignorance leads to numerous malapropisms (perhaps a rare too-cute touch on Kingsolver’s part) and whose narcissism is deeply unattractive. But even Rachel is fascinating in her way. About mid-way through the book, I started thinking of her as a contemporary Scarlett O’Hara, admirably resilient in hardship but contemptibly rigid in her worldview—employing the same arrogant stubbornness for good and ill—and though that comparison didn’t make me like Rachel better (I’ve always loathed Scarlett), it did make her more interesting to me, maybe even pitiful.

But I still looked forward to the chapters voiced by Leah and Adah. At first glance, the Price twins are polar opposites of each other—Leah idealistic and athletic, dedicated to their father’s mission; Adah cynical and deformed, rejecting that mission with scorn—but both girls are far more complicated than that easy binary would suggest, and their maturation would be a book in itself. Their voices are provocative and unflinching. Leah, in particular, comes to voice some of Kingsolver’s own political beliefs, but those beliefs are not an imposition; they are hers, Leah’s, as well, organic to the character and powerfully expressed.

The novel has greatest momentum in its first half, when all the Prices are together, telling the same story from their different vantage points. After the family shatters, the narrative splinters, too, following the sisters as they lead their separate lives. But by then, we know the family so well, are so invested in their lives and (in my case, at least) so enraptured by Kingsolver’s prose, that the fragmentation cannot diminish the novel’s pull.

That prose truly is extraordinary. Adah’s sections feature all kinds of verbal pyrotechnics (the girl relishes anagrams, homophones, inverted words, and other linguistic tricks), but even when the language is comparatively tame, Kingsolver has a striking ability to sow trepidation without using obviously frightening words, to be poetic without sacrificing the characters’ voices, and to vividly describe a scene—smells and sounds and sights—without stalling the narrative. Countless passages beg to be reread, the better to savor the diction and parse the layers of meaning.

Many passages, in fact, must be carefully examined, for embedded in the suspenseful, unspooling yarn are intriguing, challenging ideas. Most prominent, perhaps, are the links Kingsolver draws between the colonization of Africa and the subjugation of women—and how religion has been used as a bludgeon on both. Yet no matter how uncompromising Kingsolver’s vision is, she isn’t pedantic. No one could ever mistake her bold, beguiling novel for a position paper. The artistry of every word transcends debate.

So where to begin with The Poisonwood Bible? Where to end? It’s a book that seems destined to become a classic, not because it’s intellectually stimulating or aesthetically ravishing, but because it is both those things, a grandly epic, enchantingly intimate masterwork. It’s one of my new favorite novels, and I can’t wait to reread it.

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