The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

by Laura Mclellan

The Poisonwood Bible is not a short read but I found myself devouring it at every possible free moment. The story is told alternately from the perspective of Orleanna, Adah, Leah, Rachel and Ruth May, wife and daughters of American evangelical Baptist, Nathan Price.

Preaching a fire and brimstone version of Christianity, Nathan leads his family in to the heart of the Congo in 1959 – a period of great instability and rebellion as the indigenous population struggles to free themselves from Belgian control.

This political aspect is a simmering backdrop to the first part of the book, which sees the Price family take centre stage. Although, in his view, Nathan is trying to “save” the villagers, his fanaticism and self-righteousness succeed only in offending their ancient customs. He further ostracises his already isolated family, which then leads to disaster in a perversely ironic turn of events.

Oleanna and her daughters, with their short comings and character flaws, are three dimensional and immensely endearing. Each narrator is given a unique voice, as authentic as any real set of sisters. With humour and tenderness, Kingsolver’s evocative descriptions transport the reader to the exotic, humid and at times ferocious, Congolese forest, where these women will be forced to confront their true characters.

In the second part of this novel, political upheaval fractures the already-fragile family bonds and the characters disperse. What follows spans 30 years and two continents as the Prices, and the Congo itself, attempt to redefine their identity.

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