Originally published in 1998, Barbara Kingsolver’s much loved novel, The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family, a missionary family who in 1959 move from their home in Georgia to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo.
‘Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened’
The book is split into seven sections, five of which begin with the voice of Orleanna Price, the mother of the family. From there the narration alternates between the family’s four daughters. Eldest daughter Rachel, who is 15 years old at the start of the novel, 14 year old twins Leah and Adah and 5 year old Ruth May. I usually enjoy books that feature multiple perspectives and this was no exception. It was great to see each daughter’s personality and views and they each had different ideas and different voices. Rachel was a more self-centred character, Leah was bold and assertive, Adah, who has a condition which leaves her unable to speak, was observant and there was an innocence to Ruth May’s voice.
‘It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.’
Over the course of the novel, we get to watch these girls grow up and mature. It is about a clash of cultures, and shows the girls adapting to life in a village, living in a culture that is alien to them. This predictably leads to many challenges as the Price family try to settle in the village. It proves particularly difficult as Nathan, their father, tries to introduce his faith to the locals. Nathan is cast in an unfavourable light throughout the novel. He was the reason for moving his family away from home whilst on his mission, much to the detriment of his loved ones lives. It would have been interesting to have a chapter told from Nathan’s perspective, to see his views on why he did what he did, and how he perceived his family’s new life in the Congo.
‘On the wings of an owl the fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family…’
Through The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has created a thought provoking story that raises questions about colonialism, culture and humanity. It looks at the involvement of the West in altering and influencing the citizens of the Congo. As an evangelical Baptist, Nathan’s ‘mission’ was to save the citizens of the Congo through religious conversion. Kingsolver also clearly has a lot of knowledge on the culture and the history of the Congo is explored in great detail, along with the attempts by others to gain control. This level of detail gave the story an authentic voice.
‘…but still it’s frightening when things you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known.’
I did find that the pace of the novel was slower than I usually prefer and at over 600 pages it is quite a lengthy read. That aside I found it to be well written and each character was well developed. It is an enjoyable portrait of a family placed in unfamiliar territory, and an interesting glimpse into another time and another culture.