Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

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A first child is your own best foot forward, and how you do cheer those little feet as they strike out. You examine every turn of flesh for precocity, and crow it to the world. But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after–oh, that’ s love by a different name.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember when at the beginning of the year, I promised to read more books than I had the previous year? That brings this year’s hopeful goal to 36 books, roughly three books a month. Well, I can tell you that so far, it’s been a rough start. I’ve been trying to improve my life in other ways (exercising more often, counting calories, trying to spend more time with my family) that by the end of January, I only managed to finish one book.

At the beginning of last week, though, I suddenly became more diligent about reading. Two things sparked this change. For one, I found Emma Watson’s Goodreads account, and that she’d read 39 books in 2016. That was three more than my count, and I figured that if someone with what I imagine to be a much more hectic, exciting life than mine managed to read 39 books, I could easily read more on a daily basis. I also read a thinkpiece where the writer professed how easy it is to change your mindset about something. He described how he’d always thought he needed a car, but one day he decided to bike to and from work instead – resulting in a new hobby he enjoyed, improved health, and more savings. I’d always avoided reading on the train to and from work, since my commute is only about ten minutes and I’d figured it wasn’t enough time for me to make a significant dent in my book. Still, I realized, ten minutes makes a difference when I hold myself accountable and read each day.

That being said, it took me more than a month to finish The Poisonwood Bible. Part of it was my own laziness, but part of it was the book’s dense prose. I’ve studied Heart of Darkness about three times now as part of different courses, and one aspect that instructors never fail to bring up is Joseph Conrad’s dense prose, attributed to English not being his first language, but also as a metaphor for the denseness of the African jungle. The Poisonwood Bible, set mostly in the Belgian Congo, is similarly heavy in setting and narration.

The novel is the tale of the Price family, consisting of Nathan, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, who travel from Georgia to the Belgian Congo so Nathan can spread the word of Jesus to the people. Narrated between the mother and her four daughters, the novel provides diverse perspectives regarding race, colonialism, family, and the role of women, while also providing enough context to not alienate a reader like me who has little background about the history of the Belgian Congo.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Admittedly, it can be quite dense. Much of the novel is written from the perspectives of characters looking back on their past, and this results in a lot of description and introspection, rather than conversation and action. Although I personally prefer novels to contain more introspection than action, I found it sometimes overwhelming in this book. However, all other aspects of the book I found engaging, especially the characters, who have well-defined personalities, relationships, and depth (even Rachel, the shallowest of the Price clan, has understandable motives and hopes).

When I first finished the book, though, I felt ambivalent about how the girls were portrayed at the end. While they do undergo character development, I felt that each character remained essentially unchanged at the beginning of the novel, although decades pass between the beginning and the end of the novel. However, with further thought, I think that’s realistic – many people remain at the core the same person as a child and an as an adult. It also highlighted the instability in the area by having a character discuss government upheavals and political scandals while remaining with the same values and morals.

YES OR NO?: YES. There’s something in this book for everyone: history, women’s voices, colonialism, family, romance, and even science. My only wish is that the novel spent more time in the perspective of Orleanna. That being said, it is admittedly written with a narration that can feel heavy at times, and it may take you a bit longer to finish the book than anticipated (hopefully less than me!).

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