Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

May 10, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Audiobook narrated by Dean Robertson

Adult Fiction

You might like this book if you enjoy the author's other work, are interested in family stories that stretch across many years, or if you enjoy the literary device of a story being told from the point of view of several different narrators. Also, if you have an interest in Africa, specifically the Congo and its history in the mid to late twentieth century, you may want to pick this up.

I've had this book on my reading list for ages. It gained fame in the late nineties as an Oprah's book club selection and I had started kind of avoiding anything that was on her list because they were often wrenching tales of woe and hardship and well, sheesh, I liked happier stuff. So, this one went by me in its heyday but after reading some other of Barbara Kingsolver's work, and having a cross-country drive to fill, I loaded this one up on Audible.

The prose did not disappoint-I really do like her writing. There were so many great one-liners, evocative descriptions and beautifully crafted sentences, listening was a pleasure. I liked that the narrator adopted a southern accent-it made the story of a Georgia Preacher and his family traveling to Africa as missionaries all the more authentic.

The plot was okay. I thought at times that the story might have been told in half the pages, with less description and more action, so it seemed to take a little long for me. I didn't really see too much of a developmental arc in the lives of the various main characters, instead they seemed set at the beginning and just went through all their subsequent experiences with the same awareness and thought processes throughout. I wondered about that. Okay, I guess Leah lost her faith and they all grew to be able articulate their hatred for their father/husband, but I didn't catch much else. Adah stayed introspective, shrewd and cynical, Rachel stayed self-centered, shallow and opportunistic, and the mom stayed well, morose. My favorite narrator of all was Ruth May because as a 5-year old, she seemed to have permission to be the most authentic.

I liked learning more about the Congo and the people of that nation. They have been through some serious times and I was largely unaware. It was difficult to keep things straight though, and I consulted several articles while I was listening, just to get my bearings.

I was sad that Nathan, the father and husband, was consigned to a fate of hard-hearted mysogyny, with no hope of redemption. I found it simplistic and unrealistic that his one-dimensional meanness and his breakdown were associated wholly with his religious beliefs rather than further exploring the relationshiop between his beliefs and the unimaginable pain he suffered in the war. While his experience as a soldier was mentioned on several occasions, it was lumped in with his faults and failures instead of really examined as the reason behind his madness. Don't get me wrong, I get that he was abusive and made some extremely bad decisions, but in the end it felt like he was just created to be the villian. The mother spends the entire book seeking absolution for Ruth May's death, and it is oh so convenient to just blame it all on the crazy father. I never felt like she really, really took responsibility for her own actions or just got to the point of being at peace with the universe. Her daughter's death was the fault of the village man seeking revenge. It's the sort of thing that one can hang onto and shake one's fist at the heavens about or one can see as part of the package we all get to open called life experience. Maybe that's harsh, but that's what I thought.

Overall, it was an engaging, if heavy read. There were moments of humor and clever observation to keep it from getting utterly bogged down, but in the end, it just felt sort of self-important and ponderous rather than nourishing and satisfying. What was the point of all the pain? What lessons were really learned? I was hooked till the end mostly because longed for some awareness to dawn, some peace to distill on their souls, but looked in vain. For a story that the author characterizes as something of a life's work, it was enjoyable for the beautiful prose but fell short of profound for me.

Addendum, May 15, 2012: Several extremely trusted friends have expressed that the Poisonwood Bible is one of their favorite books. I've decided I must have missed something. I'm going to set it aside for a bit and then read it again, maybe during a more settled and focused time. Maybe I just didn't have time or room in my life for it to settle into my bones the way it could have. The bottom line is that I really, really wanted it to because other work of Kingsolver's has done just that-been memorable and meaningful.

I think it is all in the timing.

I shall not dismiss it nor give up.


  1. Maybe I just read this at the right time, that I loved it so much. Sheely was a tiny nursing baby and for whatever reason, it DID really resonate.

  2. STILL haven't read this one. Started listening to it once, about five years ago and loved her language, but just wasn't ready for where the story was going. I loved Animal Dreams, though. As you mentioned, Kingsolver's prose is rewarding in and of itself.


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