This tale of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction, over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa, is set against history's most dramatic political parables.
The Poisonwood Bible dances between the darkly comic human failings and inspiring poetic justices of our times. In a compelling exploration of religion, conscience, imperialist arrogance, and the many paths to redemption, Barbara Kingsolver has brought forth her most ambitious work ever.
©2004 Barbara Kingsolver; (P)2004 Brilliance Audio
"Haunting..A novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women." (New York Times Book Review)
"The book's sheer enjoyability is given depth by Kingsolver's insight and compassion for Congo, including its people, and their language and sayings." (Boston Globe)
"Beautifully written....Kingsolver's tale of domestic tragedy is more than just a well-told yarn.. Played out against the bloody backdrop of political struggles in Congo that continue to this day, it is also particularly timely." (People)
I'm currently about 1/2 way through my second read, and I rarely read a book twice. The story is told by turns from a missionary wife and her four young daughters, set in the Belgian Congo in the 50's. While it's an "historical novel" set against the backdrop of political unrest in that country, the focus is very much on the story of this missionary family's experience in a poor Congolese village. Kingsolver's characters are beautifully drawn, as always, and the reader captures each one's unique perspective through a careful reading of Kingsolver's wonderfully written prose. I only wish the reader would slow down a little to let us savor some of Kingsolver's gorgeous use of language. One of my favorite books of all time, and that's saying a lot.
I foolishly ignored all the reviews that said the narrator was horrible. I thought I'd see for myself. BIG mistake. The book is excellent and I highly recommend reading it. I started with the audible recording but soon became utterly disgusted with the narrator who has absolutely no imagination and must be someone's wife or friend owed a favor. But the story is a good one so I got the book and totallly loved it. Don't waste your time with this recording!
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
The Poisonwood Bible has been recommended to me several times over the past few years, and I can see why. It's full of heartfelt, lyrical imagery and parable-like insight into the tragedy of imperialism. The story centers on an unyielding Baptist preacher determined to spread his strict interpretation of the gospels in the Belgian Congo circa 1960, accompanied by his wife and four daughters. Each woman or girl has her own piece of the narrative, and shares her own reflections on the events that transpire as the stubborn Nathan Price beats himself against a land, culture, and superstitions that don't fit anyone's expectations, let alone cooperate with his vision of God's will.
The characters do feel intentionally symbolic, but the beautiful writing brings them vividly to life. Orleanna, the put-upon mother, acts as a buffer between her domineering husband and the needs of her children, and feels more and more disconnected from both. The vain eldest daughter, Rachel, plays the ugly American, uninterested in stepping outside her narrow comfort zone (though this, in a way, comes to serve her). Then there are the gifted twins, Leah and Adah. Strong-willed Leah gradually absorbs the Congo under her skin, while the silent, crippled Adah, a savant in arithmetic and the illuminating poetry of backwards phrases, sees truths only an outsider-from-birth can. Finally, there is the youngest daughter, the tomboyish Ruth, whose childish stream of consciousness holds its own insights.
As the story moves forward, tensions build among the Prices, and between the family and the villagers on whom Nathan's ministry is focused. Meanwhile, resentment towards whites in the rest of the country grows, as the Belgian pullout leaves a power vacuum that both nationalists and the CIA have different agendas for (though the politics is largely in the background). And nature offers up its own trials, as it always has. Around the midpoint of the novel, Things Fall Apart, and the six members of the Price family are pulled in different directions, to very different outcomes. Even in breakdown, though, there’s a poetic symmetry that I quite enjoyed, reminding me of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.
This is, at its heart, a novel about the recognition that we're all caught in our own struggles to survive and the lives of others may be beyond our control. Kingsolver eloquently explores that theme in both the personal and political sense. Could the Western world’s jealous protectionism of capitalism-as-we-know-it actually have stunted Africa's potential? She seems to recognize, through her protagonists, that we don't know how else things might have turned out had we left the continent more to itself, but is unequivocal that it deserved better than being made a pawn to our national interests.
Definitely "message" fiction, but I don't mind that if it’s written with skill, compassion, and intelligence, and such was the case here. To me, the only thing that was too heavy-handed was the device of having Rachel constantly misuse words for ironic effect. Okay, the poor girl’s not that bright, but give her a break.
Audiobook narrator Dean Robinson does a passable job, but I wish she’d done a little more to distinguish the sisters and had had a better grasp of different international accents. Listeners should pay close attention to the chapter headings to keep up with who’s telling each part of the story.
Retired teacher. Hometown: Eden, NY.
There is something in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE for everyone. Whether it be a probing examination of Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo, a painfully revealing observation of human relationships, the naked plundering of colonialism's arrogance, the shameful machinations of the "ugly American" in African politics; or conscience and redemption, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is certain to elevate the reader out of his comfort zone.
It is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a firebrand evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it - from Betty Crocker cake mixes to garden seeds to Scripture - is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political events of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. As history unfolds, Orleanna Price reconstructs the story of her evangelist husband's part in the Western assault on Africa, a tale incredibly darkened by own losses and unanswerable questions about her own culpability. Also narrating the story by turns are her four daughters - the self-centered teenaged Rachel, shrewd adolescent twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May, a prescient five-year-old. These sharply observant girls, who arrive in the Congo with racial preconceptions forged in 1950s Georgia, will be marked in surprisingly different ways by their father's intractable mission, and by Africa itself. Ultimately each must strike her own separate path to salvation.
Each character enters the Congo (later renamed Zaire) with preconceived expectations. Rev. Nathan Price, assigned to Kilanga mission, is determined to enlighten the savages and to rule his family with strict biblical sanction. Orleanna readies herself to protect them all from whatever perils may come - from jungle, river, or father and his terrible God. Rachel, fifteen, resents being dropped on "this dread dark shore" far from America's fashions and comforts. "God's Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory" epitomizes Leah's involvement in her surroundings. Adah, victim of hemiplegia at birth, limps along and maintains silence. And little Ruth May just faints all the time.
From 1959 through 1998, the Price sisters tell their stories in alternating narratives that reflect their ages as the years pass and the understandings that they achieve. These stories - together with Orleanna's retrospective commentaries - reveal the amazing forty-year saga that the Prices and the Congo share.
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE gradually reveals its binding themes, chief of which is the cultural arrogance of the West. Nathan serves as the personal embodiment of Western pride, unquestioning in his missionary zeal to overturn the ancient traditions of the Congo and replace them with his own religious beliefs. His "demonstration garden" reveals his stultifying hubris that the Congolese are so backward that they have no idea how to grow their own food. It is the United States government, however, that wields its cultural arrogance most dangerously, feeling entitled to assassinate a foreign nation's president (Patrice Lamumba) and replace him with its own greedy puppet ruler.
Brother Fowles, who symbolizes the positive side of Christianity, is the first to introduce the theme of pantheism into the book. Orleanna, herself a former nature worshipper, quickly picks up on this idea and adopts it as her own form of spirituality. Given that cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin's primary vehicles, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote.
Another major theme is how people deal with the burden of guilt. Although the book may be seen as a political allegory, the story it tells focuses on the guilt of five women - for example, their private guilt over the death of a daughter and sister, and their public guilt over the rolled they played in Africa's tragedies. The question is constantly in the foreground: What did our nation do in the Congo, and how should we respond to the fact?
It is through Adah that we receive the revelation of another inescapable primary theme - the impossibility of absolute and unambiguous justice on a global scale. Most of the women who address the issue insist that a complete routing of injustice from the world is impossible. Adah compels us to most closely examine justice in global terms. Absolute justice, she says - at least the crude sort of justice that Westerners believe in - is impossible. We think, for instance that it is unjust that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this injustice, we send over doctors to feed and inoculate them. Yet, she points out, the result of this good deed is simply death of a different sort. Overpopulation leads to food shortage, deforestation, and the extinction of species. We cannot change the balance of the world, eliminating all that we consider sad and wrong.
While preparing this review, I made a list of quotations that impressed me with their capacity to reveal the depth of character growth in so few words. I have choses to illustrate with five.
~~ "Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife if not a conquest herself?" This quote appears in Orleanna's opening narrative and immediately introduces us to the dominant theme of the book. She suffers paralyzing guilt over her complicity in the death of one of her daughters, and also the overwhelming guilt she suffers because of the crimes perpetrated by the United States against the natives of the Congo.
~~ "The smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face." When Adah discovers that Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States, is behind the CIA plot to overthrow the elected government of Congo and assassinate its president, it shows her growing disillusionment with father figures (Nathan, God, and American leaders) that Orleanna and Leah are experiencing. For her, Eisenhower's treachery is not that different from the fact that "Grandfather God" damns children to hell just for being unbaptized.
~~ "I felt the breath of God go cold on my skin." Leah utters this as she rows with Anatole across the river and away from the driver ants. Amid the tumult of escape, Leah and Anatole speak of race and injustice, and Leah finally suffers her ultimate crisis of faith. Moments later she replaces her old faith with a new one, murmuring Anatole's name over an over, feeling that "it took the place of prayer." Her love for Anatole becomes her new anchoring force, replacing that of her father and his simplistic view vision of God.
~~ "In the world, the caring capacity for humans is limited. History holds all things in balance, including large hopes ad short lives." This is Adah's take on the notion of justice. And rather than despair over this state of affairs, she actually stands in awe of it, finding herself rooted no more passionately for the humans than any other of the major players in the global game of survival.
~~ "I am the unmissionary, as Adah would say, beginning every day on my knees asking to be converted." It is Leah expressing her guilt over being born white and American. In contrast to the missionaries, like her father and even her younger self - who sought to make the Africans just like the Westerners, imposing their values on them - Leah wants to assimilate entirely to the African culture around her. Her response is on an active level, to do all she can to minimize injustice. Yet she wants to distance herself as far as possible from those who are responsible for so much of it.
In conclusion, I would rank this novel among the best of contemporary fiction I have read/heard in many years. It has been an experience of vicarious pleasure for me, and if this very VERY senior citizen lives long enough to go to it once again - to be reopened to its cultural and spiritual conflicts, confusion and revelation, hunger and pleasure, cruelties and kindnesses, suffering and love, all combined with the day-to-day life in African villages to enrich this wondrous tale, then Barbara Kingsolver will have my everlasting gratitude.
This is a most rewarding book - a whooping good story told with tender majesty. The wisdom that Rachel, Adah, Leah, Ruth May, and Orleanna wrest from their lives is also mine ... and yours.
I enjoyed this book so much I didn't want it to finish. The story was amazingly in depth and very well researched.
Telling the story from the different female characters gave you an opportunity to become part of the book by relating to those characters as they grew and changed. You got to understand each character, and also how others saw them. The narator did a great job of differentiating between all the characters and this made it easy to immerse yourself into those individuals.
I loved it and contemplating listening again and bound the get more out of it second time around
My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.
Any American who was stationed overseas in the 50s, 60s, or 70s will find a lot to relate to here. Kingsolver's situation may have been more "rustic" than most, but the culture shock, the unpreparedness, the evolution of the connection with the locals, the unexpected effects on the children, the discovery that the locals are far more capable of running their own lives than the Americans imagined, the forces that keep the family together, and the (often stronger) forces that rip families apart, are all on display here. It doesn't matter if you were military or State Department or Peace Corps or missionaries. Kingsolver writes a fairly honest, balanced account of one family's experience through all of this. For those who weren't stationed overseas, this would be a good way to get an idea of what it was like. All of this is apart from the actual specific story Kingsolver is trying to tell. All I'll say about that is that it is a really well done example of what happens when idealism hits reality.
I loved this book, it took over every spare bit of my life whilst listening to it. The Congo part was interesting and enticing after Congo i believed it lost some interest and intrigue. I loved the narration,and the personalities portrayed. Plus it was a great learning tool about the Congo and the politics of which I knew nothing about.
Decided to listen to this one after listening to "Animal, vegetable, miracle" - did not get disappointed at all! The story is truly incredible and engrossing, even thought it's a totally different subject. Love BK's attention to detail and learned a lot about the history of Congo this time. Couldn't put the audio down and didn't want it to end.
The narrator's voice turned out to be very pleasant to listen as well.
Kingsolver is a skilled artist at weaving words together into a story with texture and color. I always feel enriched after reading one of her novels. The plot doesn't have to be about romance or mystery or history or fantasy. The story doesn't have to have a happy ending or tie up all the loose ends. It just has to connect with the human experience. Kingsolver knows how to connect.
Short, Simple, No Spoilers
Southern Baptist minister from Georgia with wife and four blonde daughters in tow head to the Congo to save souls. Agree with the author's POV and enjoy her detailed, meticulous, unassuming writing style. However, this book felt monotonous, tedious, and banal. I grasp the concept and love the hidden sarcasm, just wish she could have wrapped it up sooner. Faced with 6 more hours to go, I had to stop. Maybe I missed something important at the end, but at this point, would rather move on to more interesting books.
Not sure why this book always scores so high on lists. Maybe it's the fact someone tells the truth about how sad it is people feel the need to force their beliefs on "uncivilized" people who are perfectly content. Revelation indeed, but work more closely with your editor, Ms. Kingsolver. Also, the southern accent grated and reverberated in my ears.
This is a compelling, multi-layered novel. It tells the story of Nathan Price, a bigoted Baptist minister who takes his wife and four daughters away from the comfort of their American home to the diseased and famine ridden Congo. This move eventually leads to tragedy and to the break-up of the family. Although sad in parts it's not a heavy listen - it's hard to put down as it's written with great humour, particularly the passages relating to the eldest daughter Rachel with all her Malapropisms.
My only criticism is that the author spent far too long expounding her political views in the last quarter of the book. Those views of the ignorance of imperialism speak for themselves through the story. Aside from that, well worth the read, thought provoking and interesting from the historical perspective.
"A good story over-burdened with detail"
The author has created a wealth of strong characters: the awful, overbearing, self-righteous Baptist missionary Nathan Price; his long-suffering wife and four very different daughters that he drags to the Congo in the late 1950s to satisfy his desire to bring Jesus to the natives. The Congolese he encounters are resourceful and pragmatic and he greatly under-estimates them. It's an epic story of battling against the odds set against the tragic political upheavals caused by US meddling that ruined the country. There is much of interest in the book, but I felt there was too much descriptive detail and attempts to draw moral parallels that slowed down the narrative. The author knows a lot about the Congo having lived there and has obviously done much research, but a good story has become over-burdened with her desire to include too much of this information. There are many characters with unfamiliar-sounding names that made it difficult to keep track of who was whom: a difficulty increased by the colourless and sometimes overly hurried narration in a monotonous voice with no attempt to differentiate among the characters. The book is structured such that we get the story told from the perspective of the mother and four daughters in turn but I kept losing track of who was 'speaking' as the narrator sounded the same all the time. A pity as some audio books are brought to life by a skilled narrator who can change voice as each character speaks.
This is an excellent book in many ways and I would recommend it to anyone not just for its story but for the relevance of its politics.It is humane, insightful and finely written, and therefore deserves to be much better narrated. It is read too fast, with little expression and with no attempt to vocally differentiate between the characters, in particular the mother and her 4 daughters, the main characters, all sound like the same person. Sadly, many of the subtleties of the writing, especially in the more moving parts, are spoiled and occasionally lost altogether in the narrator's disregard for punctuation and apparent hurry to get it all over and done with! Good audio book narrators don't just read aloud, they act as well. This narrator just reads it aloud.
"Read this book to get the most out of it!"
I did not get as much out of this book as I would have done by reading it. The story, although a little slow at the start, really takes off and is well worth persevering with. However I did not like the reader and thought she made no effort to read each character differently. This book is based upon the way the women characters see life in a Congolese village at the time of the uprising in 1961. The youngest is 5. The reader did not attempt to make the listener understand which character was 'speaking'. i would have got more out of reading it 'in the voice' of each character. Therefore I cannot recommend the audible version - though i do recommend the book.
I was really looking forward to listening to this as a number of people had recommended and I had heard some great things on the radio 4 book club. However I was really disappointed, the narrator didn't bring the characters alive at all, she was very one dimensional and her voice was actually pretty annoying. The story was interesting but I'm afraid I totally switched off due to the lack of commitment from the narrator. Just goes to show how important the narrator's job is when creating an audiobook, great books often fall flat if you get the wrong person reading them.
I listened to this book after hearing Tim Butchers account of his trip down the Congo (Blood River).
It is one of my favourite audio books so far.
The characters are so beautifully drawn, they almost seem real. In fact, at times I found it hard to believe that it was a work of fiction and not based on real events (although the political backdrop is, i believe, based on what really happened and is still happening).
It is, in places, heart wrenchingly sad and there isn't really a totally happy ending, but still I felt satisfied at the end.
Some of the descriptions of people, places and emotions are almost poetic.
It's a lovely, feast of a book...
"Fascinating exploration of family and morality"
I rarely listen to stories more than once but I have now bought this book in print and think it is something I will dip back into in the future.
All the women brought something to the story and because it was told from various points of view in the form of journal entries it was possible to see the same situation differently. Each of the five main female characters added depth and richness to the story.
Robertson's performance was superb, bringing life to the characters as well as humour and warmth. She managed to bring out all their different personalities without resorting to odd accents.
The ending was very moving. The realisation that the Congo had forever changed the lives of these women, for good or ill, and the closing of old wounds as they moved on with their lives. Magical.
This was such an interesting story, sometimes reming me of Little Women, but much bigger and richer. It really made me think - about religion, about the relationship between men and women, about the things done in Africa in the name of democracy. It's taught me things about the Congo and those war torn parts of central Africa that I never knew before, and has made me question some previously held ideas.
"Entertaining, informative and profound"
It was probably Chinua Achebe’s recent death that prompted me to read this book – many years after everyone else had read it and raved about it. It is rave-worthy. It is a wonderfully evocative story narrated by a mother and her four daughters reluctantly dragged into the pre-revolutionary Congo by a fire-and-brimstone, Southern Baptist father. The mission family experience life in an obscure African village at the most tumultuous time on the continent as the wave of independence sweeps through (or past) them.
My first encounter with Kingsolver was The Lacuna and I stopped less than halfway through because the story was tedious and the author was also the narrator (audiobook) and she was just dreadful. So it took me a little while to forgive her and try another title.
This time I was very pleasantly surprised. I expected a very sombre exploration of cultures and religion, and although these exist throughout the book, my first reaction was to laugh out loud. The voices of the narrators bring out their idiosyncrasies, their (sometimes) hilarious perspectives on their lives. The story is strong and simple. They remind me of the Paul White Jungle Doctor stories which my father used to read to us. The tone is identical and the stories are simple, honest and natural.
But in addition to the quaint retelling of these village events, the deeper issues of competing religious views and the tragic consequences of fanaticism make this a most memorable novel. Very highly recommended.
The narrator (this time) is exceptionally good and her French is quite acceptable. I won't comment on her Afrikaans pronunciation but that is understandable.
I read this book years ago, and enjoyed it, but having just listened to it via audible, I have picked up on so many more nuances and clever tricks of language that I missed in the dense text of hard copy. Kingsolver is the mistress of words that can mean more than one thing, indeed she creates a character who makes meanings of words that are read backwards! Even the title is a play on the dual meaning of the word the preacher uses for Jesus - in the tribal language of the congolese people he is trying to convert, it means poisonwood - a deadly plant that will kill you. His ignorance, however, is foiled by the understanding of his wife and four daughters, each of whom have their own narrative voice and story. An absolutely compelling story that is at once a celebration of freedom and independence and a tragic exposition of social prejudice and expectation. Not a light read, but certainly one not to be missed!
"Lyrical and compelling"
I enjoyed it. If the narration was a little flat, I wasn't put off by it and the fact that each subsection is preceded by a naming of the character involved helps in following the plot. The character of the four daughters is drawn out carefully, as is their development over time. The Congo and its people are far more than a mere backdrop; they shape the growth of Orleanna and her four girls, whereas the refusal of the father to attempt any sort of integration compromises not only his religious mission but also his family bonds. He fades slowly out of the picture, leaving Orleanna to face all the consequences.
I wasn't convinced by all the characters. I couldn't get into the head of Rachel, the eldest girl, and Nathan, the father, remains a cipher despite his backstory. Adah, on the other hand, is fascinating and her plays with words reflect Kingsolver at her lyrical best.
At times the book feels a little like a treatise on long-suffering motherhood and the second half seems nowhere near as strongly written but, overall, I thought it had real impact.
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