The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver

Recently there has been a wave of interest among American writers in the historical novel. In the last eighteen months alone, major names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Banks, and Roth have all taken a turn.

While these authors have elected to stay within the American setting and experience, Barbara Kingsolver has ventured further afield. The Poisonwood Bible is a historical novel that takes place during the Congo’s struggle for independence and the subsequent betrayal of the Mobutu years. It follows the fortunes of the Price sisters: four young girls brought to the Congo by their missionary father Nathan and his long-suffering wife Orleanna.

The novel is narrated by the four children, with Orleanna functioning as a kind of chorus. As they grow up, the sisters are defined by their changing attitudes towards Africa, their father, and each other.

The challenge a novelist faces with such an arrangement is to avoid making all of the sisters sound the same without turning them into caricatures. In this case, the challenge is met. Each of the five voices has a unique way of handling language and is a distinct psychological creation.

The novel’s time frame shows the same sure touch – beginning with a narrow focus on the Price family’s arrival and first months in the village of Kilanga, and concluding with fragments drawn from across two continents and twenty years. One could imagine all sorts of ways that a construction like that would fall apart, but it doesn’t. Everything about this book seems to work.

As in most historical novels, there is a parallel drawn between public and private lives, the domestic and political worlds. At times the connection is made explicit – as when one of the sisters dies on the same day as Patrice Lumumba – but usually it is only implied. The violence and exploitation within the Price household, for example, mirrors the tyranny and repression of Belgian Congo and Mobutu’s Zaire.

Lying over top of these parallel tracks is the larger, Biblical analogy. Given to quoting frequently from the Apocrypha, Kingsolver’s interest is in the status of scripture as sacred text. A Poisonwood Bible is not so much an anti-Bible as one belonging to another place, and containing another history. In making this point Kingsolver is well aware that she is going where many other authors have gone before. The theme of the white man’s attempt to force his alien culture and religion on native societies is familiar ground.

But while The Poisonwood Bible has a place among other works of post-colonial African literature, Kingsolver is, first and foremost, a writer from the American south. Both Conrad and Achebe are cited in the bibliography as sources, but Faulkner is the important artistic model. As I Lay Dying gets as much play in this novel as it did in Graham Swift’s Last Orders, though its presence is more subtly felt.

What really makes The Poisonwood Bible such an impressive achievement, however, are all the things that it is not. The descriptive writing, for example, is colourful and lushly imaginative, but never loses the precision that keeps it from sailing off into the purple world. Kingsolver is ambitious without being pretentious, and political without being preachy.

The best fiction has an uncanny way of blending the familiar and the new – not by simply displacing fictional conventions into modern settings, but by making us see what it is about the old that is new. The Poisonwood Bible is a book that re-creates literature as well as history, and succeeds in doing both.

Review first published November 28, 1998. A useful background source, examining the tradition of the colonial and post-colonial African novel from a historical perspective, is Kurt Loeb’s White Man’s Burden. Why the character of the intolerant missionary has continued to be so popular, especially in American fiction, is still not clear to me.


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