Once every year or so I encounter a book that entrances me from its first sentence. The Poisonwood Bible is one of those books. Author Barbara Kingsolver tells the epic tale of the Price family - a mother and four young daughters led by their zealous, Baptist missionary father into the heart of the Belgian Congo in the 1959. Kingsolver crafts the Prices’ hardships and ultimate demise using such lush description and overwhelming emotion, I was locked in from the get go.
Section 1 (or Genesis) begins,
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…. The forest eats itself and lives forever.
Wow. Wow wow wow. I could dissect these few sentences for hours in complete reader’s ecstasy. It’s merely the beginning of our introduction to the setting, and yet we don’t need much more. This paragraph captures the vivacity, the power, the beauty, and the danger of the Belgian Congo. Africa is startlingly alive, luring the Prices in, but not without a fair warning. The opening also introduces the “glide of snake belly,” the grave omen repeated throughout the plot line. Finally, “war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation”… some of these lines are practically poetry! They deserve to be read out loud. Ahhhh, so much great stuff crammed in! This passage encapsulates exactly what Kingsolver does best - rich imagery, foreshadowing, and a mastery of language that’s nearly unbeatable.
1) Rotating narration - Kingsolver tells the story through the voices of all four Price daughters and their mother, Orleanna. Orleanna reflects back on her experience in the Congo from a relative present, while Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May move the plot along as it’s happening. Each girl holds a unique perspective, and knitted together as a whole they reveal an undeniably truthful account of their family’s destruction. I found myself looking forward most to Adah’s sections. She is a great example of a dynamic character - pessimistic, yet longing; mute, yet lover of words.
2) History lessons - Soooo I must have missed the day we learned about African colonialism and struggle for independence in history class. (Or it isn’t really taught in American high schools, which I feel is more likely). Everything from Belgian control of the Congo to blood diamonds to dictators to American sponsorship of said dictators is covered in this book. The real genius, however, is that Kingsolver includes the Congo’s history from the viewpoints of both the first world countries (through Rachel and the Underdowns) and the Congolese (through Leah and Anatole). She also weaves it into the plot so seamlessly that you never feel like you’re reading huge chunks of historic explanations. Woo hoo!!
3) Nathan Price - Reverend Price is the kind of bad guy that you love to despise. Think Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Pure evil. HOWEVER, I think it’s interesting to explore the events and emotions that created Nathan… war trauma? Guilt? Fear?
I could talk about how much I love this book for days, but I must move on! The only thing I didn’t like about this novel is that the end drags on a bit. After the climax, you’ve still got another 150 pages that read as a sort of epilogue, following the girls into adulthood. On one hand, it’s interesting to hear how the Congo shaped their lives. Kingsolver is particularly good at showing how Africa weaves itself into the girl’s very fibers, making it nearly impossible for them to return to normal American society. However, it’s a little dull and redundant.
Even so, I give this book 5 stars of out 5. GO READ IT.
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