Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Poisonwood Bible"

"The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
576 pages
Published: July 2005 by Harper Collins
Source: I bought this one at the Goodwill for 99 cents!

Nathan Price, a Baptist minister, decides, against all advice, to take his family to the heart of the Congo in 1959 to spread the word of God. They arrive there, thinking they have everything they need to get started--hammer, boxed cake mixes for birthdays they will celebrate there, and seeds to plant a garden. The only problem is that there is are no nails to hammer, the humidity causes the cake mixes to become rock-like in the box and, although the seeds will grow, they will not put on fruit--there are no bees to pollinate anything. And that is just the beginning of their misunderstanding of the people and ways of the Congo. The story is told from five different points of view--each of the four daughters and the mother and each of them tells their own story about trying to make their way through their time in the village of Kilanga. The oldest, Rachel, steadfastly refuses to learn the ways of the people and thinks only of how to get out of there. The youngest, Ruth May, soon becomes friends with the children. Leah, one of the twins, comes to the Congo determined to win her father's favor and to lead a life lead by the Bible. But she soon finds herself questioning everything she ever believed and learning to understand the subtleties of life in the village. Adah, the other twin, who has been crippled since birth, is the most observant and bides her time spying on everyone, including the pilot who brought them to the village and sometimes spends time in a hut nearby where he has a radio that no one knows about and seems to be plotting something. Kingsolver follows the life of the family during the little more than a year they spent in the village, through tragedy and then back into new lives as she continues to follow them for three decades.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book--the time the family spent in the village. Kingsolver does a marvelous job writing from the various points of view. I'm not sure I've ever read a book where the author did a better job of giving each point of view a unique voice. There was never any doubt, as I read, which girl was telling me that part of the story. And the writing was beautiful. Orleanna's parts are always written from the present looking back and her early parts are haunting.

"Seen from above this way they are pale doomed blossoms bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve, the mother especially - watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate."

"You played some trick on the dividing of my cells so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed...It's the scent of accusation."
Orleanna struggles with her role as wife and mother. She has never entirely been on board with her husband's religious views but stays on with him, even as he is obviously oblivious to the realities of life, saying he is "well inclined toward stubbornness, and contemptuous of failure." It was hard to imagine a mother allowing anyone to do to her family what Nathan did, but I had to keep reminding myself that this was a different time and place.

The second half of the book felt much slower to me, although it covers a vastly greater period of time. Perhaps for that very reason. It lost some of it's in lyricism and depth as it looked into the lives of the women as they plunged through what had happened to them over a more extended period of time. I also felt like it got a bit preachy, not necessarily that what Kingsolver was preaching was wrong, but just that it wasn't right for the novel as it had been going. I wasn't alone in my opinion of this part of the book when my book club met last night. "Preachy" was exactly the word several ladies used to describe a good part of the second half of the book. But Kingsolver still gives the reader much to love in this part.
"But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it's wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them."
"As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop."
There is so much going on in this book, so much to think about. Religion, life in another culture and what it takes to try to live in that culture, the history of Africa as the Europeans and Americans came into it. It is a book that will stay with me for a long time and one that I can easily imagine reading again.

21 comments:

  1. So glad you liked this book! I love it, and I have a hard time trying to recommend it to people. I think they're afraid that it'll be too history-heavy, and the history and politics does get more frequent in the second half.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved this book and read it twice, which doesn't happen very often. I agree that the first part of the book was much more engrossing than the second, and also that Kingsolver gets a little preachy, but overall, this is a really great read. I am so glad you liked it and you really did a wonderful job with the review! Though this was kind of a quiet book, there were some really great dramatic scenes as well.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read this one some time ago but I remember not liking it too much. I do like her writing though and loved Prodigal Summer.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've tried twice to love Kingsolver (this one and The Lacuna) and I just can't do it. I've been disappointed both times.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I am glad you liked this one more than I did. Like you said, there is a lot to ponder about this book, so I appreciated that aspect of the book.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's been a while since I read this book and I remember loving it. I think the part that struck me the most was the way other people felt the need to come in and change a culture that worked. Kingsolver can get on her soapbox, but that's part of the reason I love her work. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I read this book quite a few years ago, yet it still resonates with me today. This one is deserving of a re-read for me! Lovely review!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I didn't love it. I'd read Things Fall Apart( Chinua Achibe) before this, and that, I thought, was a more vivid portrayal of the region. So I had expectations that weren't fulfilled when I read Poisonwood. I tried.

    ReplyDelete
  9. i haven't read this one but have it on my bookshelf. for some reason, i always pass it by. i think the whole 'missionary' thing irks me a bit. :) i'm all for live and let live without imposing my will on anyone else.

    glad you enjoyed this--it does sound like a good read.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sounds like a powerful read!

    I've got an award for you http://www.missremmersreview.com/2010/06/award-62310.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm so glad you liked this book as much as I do! The pressure... whew!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I just need to read this one this summer. I've been looking at it far too long. Great review Lisa....thanks

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm about 100 pages in and am loving it! The language is so poetic and I agree that Kingsolver is an amazing writer as she writes the five different points of view. It would be interesting to have a chapter or two on the POV of Nathan. Great review and am looking forward to the rest of the book!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I read this years ago and loved it. It's one that I definitely plan to reread someday. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

    ReplyDelete
  15. It's quite a book. i recall not being sure WHAT I thought of it but ended up being quite enamored by the story telling and the BIG issues involved. You are right - it has staying power.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Wow.. you've reminded me exactly why I need to read this book. I wasn't so sure if I could tackle it, but thanks to your awesome review for removing those doubts.

    ReplyDelete
  17. You are right - this book really does resonate with you. I read it several years ago and it still hangs there, in my head, the overall themes and the experience. I think it would have been great to discuss with a group. How fun!

    I notice you are doing a group read of The Space Between Us - that is another one that sticks with me. I'll try to come back and read your updates to enjoy hearing everyone's thoughts and re-live this terrific book again.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I also just read and enjoyed this book. The second half was a change of pace. I think I missed Adah's palindromes and I preferred her character before she was 'cured'. Loved the African characters. Who wouldn't love Anatole?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Nice review Lisa. It's been so long since I've read this book but I do know I loved it. I remember being fascinated by their life in the Congo and thinking there was no way I could live there. Wow if I ever have time I'd love a reread of this one.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I felt the same way about the transition from the first half of the book to the second, but it's still one of my all-time favorites. Glad you enjoyed it.

    --Anna

    ReplyDelete